The media traffics in hype, but occasionally they try to pedal something America just can’t buy. If you browsed through any reputable entertainment coverage during the past week, you might have heard that one of the world’s trendiest film festivals is spotlighting a lot of movies that star a lot of actors you’ll never hear of again.

Andrew Skidmore

Prettily elocuted diary entries from Park City – the ski resort-cum-international cinema hub that hosts the annual fest – are splashed in front of important news. For example, the fallout from Lindsay Lohan’s “Scarlett-(Johansson)-is-a- cunt” bathroom-stall poetry.

And here’s the strange part: Outside the buyers jockeying for prestige positions and blowing through studio spare change, Sundance just doesn’t do it for the masses.

As an American film festival, we might appreciate it, but Sundance lacks the austerity of Venice, the industry importance of Toronto and the champagne-swilling sex appeal of Cannes. In fact, for all the focus on how mainstream it’s turned (it probably has), and all the celebrities hitting the slopes between promotions (they probably do), what Sundance still really lacks is star pedigree.

Not that it wants it. In a quaint tradition, Sundance organizers stand on their soapboxes and attempt to reaffirm their mission to bring international attention to independent film. Glamorous celebs and glitzy parties can take it back to Hollywood and the French Riviera, they say. Sundance opened this year with “Friends with Money,” a comedy directed by Nicole Holofcener (“Lovely & Amazing”), starring tabloid staple and jilted wife Jennifer Aniston.
Of the two, guess whose picture ran next to every Sundance headline.

Without a famous face, it’s hard to get your moderately dedicated film buff to care. It’s the same in film marketing. Movies need hype to sell, and a celebrity name on the marquee is a guarantee of precisely that. This year, however, there’s been a surge in a different kind of hype.

Call it the sexiness of indie acclaim. It turned “Crash” into an $80-million international summer must see. Acclaim also made a top-five box office smash and pop-culture punchline out of cowboys in love.

All right, these films had recognizable stars, but it’s hard to argue that the appeal of Heath Ledger – box-office heavyweight of “The Brothers Grimm” – is responsible for shouldering the success of “Brokeback Mountain.” Acclaimed films, particularly those hyped as contenders for an Oscar, can go pretty far in today’s marketplace.

Of course, acclaim doesn’t always get you to the top of the box office. In fact, it doesn’t even guarantee inclusion at the local multiplexes. One of the big award winners at Sundance, “Quinceanera,” chronicles a pregnant 15-year-old Latina who goes to live with her gay cousin. Not exactly the stuff to play next door to “The Da Vinci Code” this summer.

But while it may not always work both ways, indie movies absent big stars are absolutely dependent on acclaim. If you don’t recognize someone 10 seconds into a trailer, you better believe a fistful of laurels are about to bombard the screen. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Film culture today makes going to the movies only worthwhile if the movie is hot. Nobody sees Woody Allen movies anymore, but “Match Point” has Oscar buzz. “King Kong” was an extremely audacious and accomplished film that many people avoided on the assumption that it was flopping.

And ultimately that’s the whole point of Sundance – to bestow those necessary accolades on films that can’t make it any other way. The irony is that while a Sundance branding can turn a film white hot, Sundance itself lacks appeal because films come in stone cold. But the movies people don’t read about now, instead scanning their way down the page to Lindsay’s party antics, are the ones they’ll be lining up for soon.

It’s the culture of being “in”; it’s not wanting to blow $9 on limp cinema you can’t even discuss over lunch. But less cynically, it has one very beneficial side effect: If people see a movie because it has the hype of critical acclaim, they just might get tricked into seeing something really good.

Andrade never pays to see movies, but she likes to bitch about the $9 anyway. E-mail aandrade@umich.edu.

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