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2010-01-28

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Sundance USA brings festival films to Michigan Theater

Max Collins/Daily
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By Jennifer Xu, Daily Arts Writer
Published January 24, 2010

Once a year, snowy Park City, Utah, plays host to one of the largest film festivals in the world: the Sundance Film Festival. Over a 10-day stretch, 200 independent films make their debuts to an audience of over 40,000 filmmakers, critics and pilgrimaging cinephiles. About half of these films find major distributors, with a few going on to receive Oscar gold.

Tonight, Ann Arborites will get a chance to experience Sundance close to home, as the Michigan Theater features the premiere of “Cyrus” in the Festival’s inaugural installation of a new event, Sundance USA.

“For more than 40 years, the Sundance Film Festival has been this place where films premiere – ideas getting tossed around, all this dialogue happening, and emotions – and it all happens in this one little town,” said David Courier, Sundance Film Festival senior programmer.

“Unlike other festivals, we’re not really affiliated with the city we’re in — we’re not the Park City Film Festival — we’re very much a festival for the nation and, we’d like to think, the world,” he said.

“That makes us the perfect ones to spread our tentacles across the United States.”

This past summer, the Sundance Film Committee made the decision to expand its films to audiences all around the nation, bringing eight direct-from-festival films to eight different venues, including the Michigan Theater. These films are being screened for audiences nationwide who may not be able to make the Utah trek, in addition to the other screenings in Park City.

“We’ve been fostering these voices of independent artists for so many years, and we wanted to transport these artists in the extent of their voices and ideas beyond the mountains of Utah and into these different communities,” Courier said. “They’re all communities that have shown a passion for alternative cinema and that’s why they were chosen.”

Most of the eight theaters selected, including the Michigan Theater, are part of Sundance Institute's Art House Project, a collective of mostly smaller cinemas that foster an appreciation of independent film in their local communities.

“It was very important for us to have audiences that are interested in talking about film,” Courier explained.

Directors Jay and Mark Duplass (“Baghead”) and star Jonah Hill (“Superbad”) will be present at the Ann Arbor screening of “Cyrus.” The directors will lead a Q&A session afterward, where audience members will get a chance to ask the filmmakers about their work.

“One of the reasons we wanted to do this is that we wanted to bring the experience of being at Sundance Film Festival to each one of these cities,” Courier said.

“What that means is that you’re not just going to the movie theater, buying some popcorn and watching the movie," he said. "You’re seeing a film that's being introduced by the people that made the film, and you’re staying afterwards and talking to them."

“And we’re going to have a video ahead of time, a little message from Robert Redford, a taste of Sundance that way as well. We’re trying to replicate the experience of being at the festival as much as we possibly can.”

Meanwhile, the Michigan Theater stays perched on East Liberty, a lingering remnant of Ann Arbor’s rich and lustrous history and the golden age of Hollywood itself. To the Michigan Theater, at least, time stands still. Inside, gold leaf moldings ornament the expansive halls, double stairways swirl down from the chandelier-bathed balcony and an assortment of illustrious Ann Arbor founders loom prodigiously above. The year could very well be 1929. Only the ever-changing marquees signal the evolving landscape outside — the capitalized film titles no longer read “The General” or “Modern Times” but rather “The Maid” and “Crazy Heart.”

Largest out of all the independent theaters participating in the project, the Michigan houses a whopping 1,700 velvet-lined seats in its Historic Theater, where “Cyrus” will be shown this Thursday. For the past few weeks, the theater has done its own share of preparation for the event, as festive lamppost banners line the streets and a massive billboard emerges from I-94.

For five years, the theater has enjoyed a special relationship with Sundance and its Art House Project, which supports independent cinema through special screenings and talks.

“It’s really the special relationship with Sundance that we’re trying to promote,” said Lee Berry, marketing director of the Michigan Theater. “It’s the hype behind it; people absolutely get excited about special events.”

Tickets for the event have already sold out, and half were sold before audiences even knew which film was being screened.

“Because of all the hoopla that comes with it, it’s an event — it’s more than just a movie,” Berry said. “It enables us to put more behind it in terms of marketing, get a whole lot more excitement.”

Already, Sundance USA is looking to expand in future years.

“It hasn’t happened yet, but with all the excitement and energy about it, I can only think we have to do it again,” Courier said.


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