PARK CITY, Utah – Film festivals can get off to a slow start. All that planning, all that travel booking for stars coming to pillage the gift suites, then everyone stands around waiting for a single movie, that big opening-night premiere, to get things rolling.
It's a lot to ask of one movie to set a tone for scores of films to follow over a week and a half. The Cannes Film Festival practically put itself on suicide watch in 2008 by opening with the bleak plague drama "Blindness." A year later, Cannes organizers lightened up and started with the warm-hearted animated tale "Up."
The Sundance Film Festival, which begins Thursday, used to face a similar dilemma. How do you pick that one film to stand as torchbearer for the 120 movies to come?
Three years ago, Sundance founder Robert Redford and festival director John Cooper scrapped the glitzy opening-night premiere and jumped right into the competition lineup, the films that make up the heart of the independent-cinema showcase. Day one at Sundance now presents four features — one each from its main competitions of U.S. and world dramatic films and documentaries — plus a program of short films.
"It should not be one-size-fits-all. We decided we did not want everything to be centered on just the opening-night film," Redford said. "We wanted to create as many spaces as possible to get the festival rolling. Let's avoid a red-carpet, avoid anything that suggests this is the main event."
Instead of one star-studded premiere, five separate screenings that give audiences a sampling of the diversity that Sundance is all about.
"We look collectively at those films to set the tone for what's going to be unfolding over the next 10 days," said festival programming director Trevor Groth. "It's a pretty varied selection, so you do get a sense of the kind of different elements that make up the festival."
Here's a look at Sundance's day-one feature films:
— "MAY IN THE SUMMER," U.S. dramatic competition: Filmmaker Cherien Dabis, whose immigrant drama "Amreeka" premiered at Sundance in 2009, returns with a new star: Herself. In her acting debut, writer-director Dabis plays an American woman reuniting with her family in Jordan to plan her wedding — and rethinking marriage as she copes with dysfunctional relatives.
Dabis said that after "Amreeka," people kept asking her if she wanted to act, and another director even cast her in a film. Unable to find just the right actress, Dabis put herself through the entire audition process and decided she was the woman to play the part.
Introducing "Amreeka" to Sundance audiences was one thing. Starting the festival is another.
Any opening-night jitters?
"Yes! I was so stunned when Cooper told me, and the first thing I thought was holy cow, day one. That's a big responsibility. It is definitely nerve-racking," Dabis said. "It'll be a slightly different experience as a day-one film. It's kind of nice, because it's challenging me a little bit to go there and be ready to open the festival in a way, at least open the dramatic competition."
— "TWENTY FEET FROM STARDOM," U.S. documentary competition: Morgan Neville, whose 2011 Sundance entry "Troubadours" centered on superstars such as James Taylor, Carole King, Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell, now looks at the hired hands — backup singers whose oohs and aahs prop up the voices at center stage.
What would music be without them?
"It would be out of tune," Neville said. "Backup singers do a lot more than they get credit for, and particularly in the pop world, backup singers paper over a lot of mistakes when it comes to singing live. To me, it's also like a whole dimension of soul and call and response in a way. A single singer is telling a singular story, but when you have backup singers, it's a community, so you're dealing with a much different, more compelling dynamic."
— "CRYSTAL FAIRY," world dramatic competition: It's road-trip time for writer-director Sebastian Silva — who came to Sundance with 2009's "The Maid" and 2011's "Old Cats" and has a second festival film this time, the midnight chiller "Magic Magic."
Silva's day-one premiere stars Michael Cera as a smug, judgmental American who invites a free spirit calling herself Crystal Fairy (Gaby Hoffmann) on a mescaline quest through the Chilean desert, where he learns to shed his self-righteousness and she comes to accept her real self and leave the pixie behind.
So the keys to happiness are drugs and travel?
"Calling it a crowd-pleasing druggie road trip would be a very, very superficial take on it," Silva said. "'Crystal Fairy' is a great film for opening night, because it sort of lifts up your spirits. It's a really fresh experience, and I think it's a non-pretentious movie. But it's not necessarily a happy ending, things are not necessarily happy and joyful. But it feels very real, and you sort of learn to be compassionate yourself as you go through the movie."
— "WHO IS DAYANI CRISTAL?", world documentary competition: First-time director Marc Silver and producer Gael Garcia Bernal dig into the mystery of a body found rotting in the Arizona desert, bearing a tattoo that reads "Dayani Cristal."
Weaving between documentary segments and sequences featuring Bernal retracing the dangerous route many Mexicans take to reach the United States, they try to put a human face on a man who otherwise would have been another anonymous victim of the immigration battle.
So who is Dayani Cristal?
Something of an Everyman for millions who dream of a better life.
"What that body in the desert told me is why leave people leave home, how dangerous the journey is," Silver said. "To rehumanize somebody who was dead and didn't have an identity, and by the end of the film, you know him and his family, that really is the heart of the film. It's a metaphor for many immigrants all over the planet."