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At Sundance Filmfest, Distributors Angle for This Year's Big Catch

Some say Sundance the film festival is in danger of being eclipsed by Sundance the event: the wheeling, dealing, and starlets' scene-stealing. Not a chance.

Robert Redford's film festival has held its own as America's premier independent filmfest since 1981 - despite a growing onslaught of cell-phone-toting agents and distributors eager for the next big thing. This year promises to be no different.

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"Our goal is to present a full range of American cinema," says Jeffrey Gilmore, the festival's programming director. "We look at a broad range of work, and every year [what we present] changes."

Of the 127 feature films on offer this year, Mr. Gilmore says there's no one defining theme. "The strength of the festival is that we have no secret agenda of what we should and should not include," he says. "We don't sit around and say we should include this kind of film to send a message."

This year's selection includes many women, Latino, and black filmmakers, but Gilmore says no one group represents the emerging trend at this year's festival.

"It's not just that there's a different voice or perspective out there, but that there's a really high kind of quality brought to that perspective. I have a group of films that I expect will be chased by the distributors. Whether it will match last year, we'll see."

At the 1996 festival, films like "The Spitfire Grill," "Big Night," and "Lone Star" set off a bidding frenzy by distributors.

This year's festival, set for Jan. 16 to 26 in Park City, Utah, includes 71 world premires and 34 films being screened stateside for the first time. Screenings are rounded out by tributes - to Rainer Werner Fassbinder this year - panel discussions, and, of course, parties, where the serious business takes place.

Candidates this year? "We've got more cerebral work than in past years, and there are more comedies," says Gilmore. Among films expected to be shown are Eric Bogosian's "SubUrbia," about disaffected youth, and the docudrama "Prefontaine" about long-distance runner Stefe Prefontaine, written and directed by "Hoop Dreams" filmmaker Steve James.

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Some industry observers voice concern that Sundance's immense success is pricing smaller independent filmmakers out of the festival - a suggestion that clearly irritates Gilmore. "They don't really know what they're talking about," he says. "We've always talked about the $25,000, the $15,000, the $7,000 films. That's how you find 'The Brothers McMullen.' "

Jennifer McShane, who debuted her documentary "Leap of Faith" at Sundance in 1996, says the opportunity is invaluable. "There's no better place to premire an independent film."

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