PARK CITY, Utah -- It's that time of year again when a tiny ski-resort town becomes the place to be for anyone in show business -- stars and directors, distribution executives, musicians, unknown filmmakers hoping that people might want to hear the stories they tell.
Opening Thursday, the Sundance Film Festival takes over Park City for a week and a half every January. Anything resembling a theater is booked with screenings. Directors and their casts trudge snowy streets to introduce films and do interviews. Bars and restaurants are stuffed with people talking deals, or just talking about something crazy or unexpected they just saw on screen.
"It's almost like Burning Man. Once a year, this tiny little town that then transforms itself into kind of a crazy film city for 10 days out of the year," said writer-director Lynn Shelton, a Sundance regular ("Humpday," "Your Sister's Sister") who returns this year with "Touchy Feely," starring Rosemarie DeWitt as a massage therapist suddenly struck by an aversion to touching others. "It's crammed with people all there for one reason. Whatever relationship they have to the industry, they're all there for the love of films."
The top U.S. showcase for independent cinema, Sundance has grown along with the do-it-yourself film world and has played a huge role in creating opportunities for low-budget filmmakers to get their work made and seen.
Robert Redford added the festival in 1985 as an offshoot of his Sundance Institute that offers professional support to indie filmmakers.
That first year, the festival showed a couple of dozen films. This year, Sundance is playing 119 feature films from 32 countries, culled from about 4,000 that were submitted.
"It's gotten pretty overwhelming," Redford said. "I never dreamed when we started -- we didn't even know that we would last -- and then when it lasted and grew, it became huge. I never anticipated that it would get to this size."
Now the name Sundance is almost a synonym for the possibilities of independent film. The festival helped launch the careers of filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino and has premiered such Academy Award winners and nominees as "Little Miss Sunshine," "Precious," "Winter's Bone" and last year's top Sundance prize winner, "Beasts of the Southern Wild."
This year's lineup includes Ashton Kutcher as Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in director Joshua Michael Stern's film biography "jOBS"; Amanda Seyfried as porn star Linda Lovelace in Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's "Lovelace"; Shia LaBeouf and Evan Rachel Wood in Fredrik Bond's romance "The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman"; Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen in Naomi Foner's teen tale "Very Good Girls"; Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg in John Krokidas' beat-poet story "Kill Your Darlings"; and Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater's "Before Midnight," a follow-up to "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset."
There's also a reunion for two "Little Miss Sunshine" stars: Steve Carell and Toni Collette co-star in Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's Sundance premiere "The Way, Way Back."
Redford has insisted on giving documentaries equal time with dramatic features, and this year's festival has a wild range of nonfiction topics, including Barbara Kopple's "Running from Crazy," a study of Mariel Hemingway and her family's history of mental illness and suicide, including that of grandfather Ernest Hemingway; Alison Ellwood's "History of the Eagles Part 1," a portrait of the pop supergroup; Alex Gibney's "We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks"; Foo Fighters singer Dave Grohl's "Sound City," a look at a venerable recording studio; Freida Mock's "Anita," a portrait of Anita Hill, who accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment; and R.J. Cutler and Greg Finton's "The World According to Dick Cheney," an examination of the former vice president.
"The company is such good company. The programmers at Sundance, their taste is impeccable," said Lucy Walker, who premiered her 2010 documentaries "Countdown to Zero" and "Waste Land" and returns this year with "The Crash Reel," chronicling the recovery of snowboarder Kevin Pearce from a traumatic brain injury. "I feel like right now, the documentary field at Sundance, it's just such a remarkable collection of top-quality films."
Actress and filmmaker Lake Bell, who directed a short film that premiered at Sundance in 2011 and co-starred in last year's festival feature "Black Rock," said coming to Park City in January reminds her of going back to college.
There's a campus spirit among festival organizers, audiences and especially the filmmakers, said Bell, who returns this time with her feature directing debut, "In a World ...", in which she plays a woman struggling to follow in her father's career as a voice-over star.
Festival organizers even like to call the year's group of filmmakers the "Class of 2013."
Like college, Sundance is a safe haven, a place of camaraderie and mentoring before graduates have to head into the real world -- in the case of filmmakers, before they have to cope with the business side of show business.
"Sundance is right before the scary stuff starts. The judgment and the reviews and the forums, all that silly stuff," Bell said. "It's the purity before the storm."
Festival director John Cooper jokes that he would not mind a real storm -- something to maintain that purity and keep the real world from intruding on the little bubble of creative expression that is Sundance.
"I hope we all do get snowed in," Cooper said.