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The power of Sundance

The film festival can make and remake the careers of stars and directors.

January 20, 2011|By John Horn and Chris Lee, Los Angeles Times
  • Patrick Dempsey stars in the movie "Flypaper," premereing at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
Patrick Dempsey stars in the movie "Flypaper," premereing… (Sundance Film Festival )

Most actors would kill for Patrick Dempsey's credits. The 45-year-old performer not only stars in the highly rated television series "Grey's Anatomy" but also boasts the movie hits "Valentine's Day" and "Enchanted."

Yet when Dempsey — Dr. McDreamy to his TV admirers — looks at the trajectory of his career, he fears being pigeonholed as the likable, romantic comedy hunk who can't play anything else. "If you're typecast, you really have to take the initiative and change people's opinions about you," Dempsey said. "You have to be very proactive."

So this weekend Dempsey will fly to Park City, Utah, for the Sundance Film Festival, where his movie "Flypaper" will have its world premiere. While Hollywood movers and shakers go to Sundance for any number of reasons — the parties, the swag, the skiing, the deals — any number of actors and filmmakers now head to the nation's top showcase for independent movies with a distinct professional goal: to reinvent their image.

The brainchild of actor and director Robert Redford, Sundance is best known for putting great film artists on the map. It's where directors Steven Soderbergh ("Sex, Lies, and Videotape") and Quentin Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs") were discovered as well as actors Brad Pitt ("Johnny Suede"), Carey Mulligan ("An Education") and Ryan Gosling ("The Believer"). But because so many show business eyes are focused on so few films, Sundance also can facilitate résumé rewrites. As the received wisdom goes, an appearance in a well-received Sundance movie can reestablish a performer as a serious actor — not mere movie star — leading to more meaningful parts.

"It can be a great place to change your image," said John Cooper, the festival's director. But he cautioned that if the movie isn't well made, any career switch can be torpedoed. "It has to be about the movie first and the agenda later," he said.

After years of playing James Bond, Pierce Brosnan reinvented his career with the Sundance titles "The Matador" and "The Greatest" (he appears in the black comedy "Salvation Boulevard" at the festival this year). Katie Holmes, who was acting in the teen TV romance series "Dawson's Creek," used the Sundance movie "Pieces of April" to establish herself as a legitimate film actor (and she's back at the fest on Friday with "Son of No One").

Tom McCarthy, best known as a character actor in shows like "Boston Public," made his directorial debut with the Sundance feature "The Station Agent" and is now among Hollywood's top independent filmmakers, with "The Visitor" and this year's "Win Win."

As for Dempsey, he not only stars in "Flypaper," a dark comedy about two criminal gangs trying to rob the same bank simultaneously, but he also produced the film, helping raise funds and hire a director ("The Lion King's" Rob Minkoff, also out to rebrand himself). Dempsey plays an unstable man — picture a high-functioning idiot savant — who helps solve the film's central mystery.

"I'm taking a little bit of a pivot, career-wise," Dempsey said. "I knew I couldn't play the romantic comedy card again. I was starting to get pigeonholed, and I started to get frustrated with that. I need to show other people what I can do — or you get stuck in a corner that you can't get out of."

Because many of these low-budget movies are made without a theatrical distributor in place, their producers often turn to recognizable stars in the hopes that their presence might expedite a sale. The actors, usually working at a fraction of their typical salary, are in turn allowed to play parts considered outside their wheelhouse.

Dempsey is hardly alone in showcasing his versatility at this year's festival, which opened Thursday and runs through Jan. 30. Ray Liotta similarly heads to Utah's mountains with two Sundance premieres: the New York cop potboiler "Son of No One" and the suburban drama "The Details."

"I don't know if having two movies at Sundance screams out that there's heat on me," Liotta said, "but it sure helps."

The star of "Goodfellas" — as well as more than a few straight-to-DVD titles and make-the-mortgage movies (see: "Operation Dumbo Drop") — Liotta calls himself a "journeyman" with an "up-and-down career." But the 56-year-old veteran knows how a Sundance movie can open up job prospects, having traveled to the festival in 2002 with "Narc," the gritty thriller in which he co-starred and produced.

"There was a bit of bounce after 'Narc,'" Liotta said. "From a career standpoint, it's all about getting more and more opportunities. With these movies, I'm hoping the same thing happens again."

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