Sundance Film Festival 2011 – indie mecca or Hollywood extravaganza?

It must be January. Having packed the Golden Globes, the AFI luncheon, the Broadcast Critics Film Association awards, and a zillion other galas and parties into one weekend, it’s now on to the next thing: Sundance, which kicks off on Thursday, meaning Hollywood has exactly three days to get over their hangovers, charge a few more North Face puffy jackets to the AmEx, and figure out how, exactly, to fit in three movies, four dinners, and two after-parties into one Saturday night.

Good problems to have, no doubt, but nevertheless daunting. Indeed, at this point, Sundance still feels like one giant flood of information: an endless stream of filmmakers’ names (familiar and not); movie titles; and invitations to events that may or may not enrich our inner-cinéaste, but that, nonetheless, we will be attending (that’s you, Chefdance!).

Already, there’s the annual debate: will this year’s festival be another Hollywood-infused red carpet extravaganza, flush with A-list names more typically seen this time of year on the slopes of Aspen? Or will it harken back to its true, indie roots-to a time when only the cool kids knew who Parker Posey and Chloe Sevigny were?

The reality? Probably both. But there are good signs of the latter scenario prevailing.  Indie darling Kevin Smith, one of the original Sundance progeny, is back this year, with his film RED STATE. As is a (relatively) more recent festival discovery: Miranda July, who’s bringing THE FUTURE, her follow-up to ME AND YOU AND EVERYONE WE KNOW. And the documentary category is feeling particularly strong, with PAGE ONE, Andrew Rossi’s inside look at The New York Times, and the ubiquitous Alex Gibney’s film about the Merry Pranksters (MAGIC TRIP), to name just a few.

As for the other perennial question: how will sales be?–i.e., have we officially gotten past the recession, and bemoaning the slimmed-down indie marketplace? Again, the answer will probably prove a shade of grey. While all-night bidding wars led by Harvey Weinstein are pretty much a thing of the past, there’s already been an early acquisition (Roadside Attractions’ purchase of THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED, directed by Jim Kohlberg), which bodes well. And Harvey, of course, is coming, which means you can’t rule anything out.

One of our favorite sightings last year was a bundled-up Weinstein working his cell phone in the lobby at the Eccles Theater, before a screening of HOLY ROLLERS. In the midst of barking at whomever was on the other end of the call, a woman ran up to him and said, “Is this the one about Jews and LSD?”

Weinstein paused long enough to nod gravely at her, and then resumed his verbal onslaught.

Ah, warm, loving spirit of indie filmmaking! Stay tuned for more observations, overheards, and hopefully madcap adventures from Park City–which will begin once we kick this hang-over.

For more of Nicole’s dispatches at the Sundance Film Festival see her blog on The Daily Beast