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Cooper, Saldana, Weinstein Dance the Indie Film Dance in Park City


Cooper, Saldana, Weinstein Dance the Indie Film Dance in Park City

Photo: Sonia Recchia/Getty Images

Here on Main Street in Park City, Utah, standing across from the Egyptian Theater, it's gotten relatively quiet. The mood is no longer that of a frat party, although even as late as yesterday crowds stood outside of the Acura Lounge crying "Bradley! Bradley!" as Cooper stepped into the swirling snow flurries. With new cavalier facial hair, Cooper exited a series of interviews for "The Words," leaving his diminutive co-star Zoe Saldana behind. Couple alert: no visible canoodling there.

It wasn't so calm and quiet last Saturday, when a blizzard dumped more than two feet of snow on the Utah ski mecca and created Snowdance. That wouldn't have been a problem if filmmakers, publicists, stars, festival-goers, and the rest had understood that snow down means slow down. Over at the MARC Theater, where "This Must Be the Place" premiered, Harvey Weinstein howled at his minions because star Sean Penn was not in the house, despite having gotten in his car 90 minutes before. Where was he? Stuck in the serpentine traffic with everybody else.

2012 Sundance Breakout Movies >>

There was also an elegiac feeling on the opening weekend as longtime indie behind-the-scenes giant Bingham Ray unexpectedly succumbed to a series of strokes at the age of 57. The man behind October Films and such movies as Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" and Mike Leigh's "Secrets and Lies" had touched many lives at the festival, including that of longtime honcho Robert Redford. Ray worked tirelessly over the last three decades to advance independent films. His death also had a symbolic meaning: The festival that started in the '80s for young turks fighting against the Hollywood machine has now reached middle age. Its champions are as likely to be turning 60 at the festival as they are to be arriving for the first time with a debut film made on their parents' credit cards and crashing in someone's overcrowded condo.

Also heading to the hospital was Tracy Morgan, co-star of "Predisposed." The film's co-director and co-writer Ron Nyswaner ("Philadelphia"), who accompanied Morgan, told Yahoo! that rumors of partying were exaggerations; Morgan is sober. He's also a diabetic with a transplanted kidney, and the combination of the high altitude and exhaustion precipitated the collapse. Morgan has now returned to the New York set of "30 Rock."

Significantly healthier were sales at this year's festival. Fox Searchlight snapped up "The Surrogate" and "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Sony Pictures Classics bought "Celeste and Jesse Forever" and the documentary "Searching for Sugar Man." Focus Features bought "For a Good Time, Call ...," and Millennium Entertainment bought the paranormal thriller "Red Lights." Sales continue to roll out, but there's a new conservatism in the bidding as deals in previous years were as likely to go bust as they were to boom. For example, when Focus Features bought "The Kids Are All Right" in 2010 for under $5 million, the film went on to gross over $20 million and received four Oscar nominations. But their 2011 bargain, "Pariah," at less than $1 million, has generated only around $400,000 at the box office thus far, little buzz in the crowded awards season, and two Independent Spirit nominations.

As the festival enters its final weekend with Parker Posey emceeing the awards ceremony tomorrow night, this year's breakout ingénue appears to be Lizzy Caplan. Claiming the Elizabeth Olsen/Jennifer Lawrence spot, the hot young "Mean Girls" star, 29, has two movies: "Save the Date" and "Bachelorette." Also on the verge of major stardom is classically trained British actress Andrea Riseborough. She's delicately devastating opposite Clive Owen in the espionage thriller "Shadow Dancer," which made its festival debut this week. If her name sounds familiar, she also plays Wallis Simpson in "W.E." and accompanied Madonna to the Golden Globes.

Stars' Bizarre Sundance Outfits >>

And there are still surprises to be had here in Park City. When I read the thumbnail descriptions of the U.S. Dramatic Competition films and saw one centered on a Berkeley man in an iron lung who seeks to lose his virginity via a sexual surrogate, it gave me pause. I wasn't sure whether it was a real movie or a Sundance parody in "The Onion." Now, after seeing "The Surrogate" at a packed theater yesterday, I realize that sometimes even the most far-fetched plot can be affecting and even wryly humorous. And, I can already lay odds that John Hawkes ("Winter's Bone"), who plays handicapped poet Mark O'Brien, will be among next year's serious best actor contenders.