Maybe it’s the endless (and mindless) media coverage of the glitzy parties, extravagant gift bags and supple starlets decked out like ski bunnies, but many critics have accused the Sundance Film Festival of losing its indie edge.

What began as a project to bring attention to filmmakers outside the mainstream has become, during the past 25 years, a world-famous event for big-studio bidding and celebrity showcasing.
But this year, Sundance organizers have developed “The Art House Project,” a program intending to spotlight the work of theaters across the country that exhibit films outside the mainstream – the films Sundance was founded to promote. Ann Arbor’s historic Michigan Theater is one of 14 art house theaters chosen to participate, with Executive Director Russ Collins serving on a panel discussion today in Park City, Utah.

“(Sundance organizers) see that their ‘brand’ is of value,” Collins said, explaining the art-house focus. “They’re trying to think of a way to associate that ‘brand’ with people who are in the trenches – the people who aren’t in New York and Los Angeles.”

Sundance Programming Director John Cooper agreed. In a statement, Cooper said, “For 25 years, Sundance has been committed to building audiences for independent film, and the art-house cinemas carry on our work day in and day out at the local level.”

For Collins, local is imperative. An Ann Arbor native, he received both his B.G.S. and a Masters in Arts Administration from the University. He has served as CEO of the Michigan Theater since 1982, and has a clear vision for the theater’s purpose.

“We’re an organization that has an artistic mission – our most important role is to make the theater available to the community,” he said.

The Michigan Theater is an independent, nonprofit organization committed to showcasing specialty films outside the mainstream.

In an essay he wrote for the Sundance Film Festival Daily Insider, Collins said, “Art house movies tend to behave as the high-end, prestige wing of the media arts (such as) the opera or the symphony of the performing arts because, as well all know, it is television that is the real mainstream of the media arts.”

And it’s that continuous struggle to look beyond the mainstream that Collins shares with the Sundance Film Festival. He appreciates what the festival has done over the years to keep its independent spirit and mission, and attributes increasing commercialization to changing perceptions. “What was an art film last year is mainstream this year. Miramax used to be the great hero, now they’re the evil empire,” he said.

But Collins seemed unperturbed by criticisms of Sundance, brushing them off as a natural byproduct of the festival’s success. Indeed, the Michigan Theater itself strives to find a balance between exhibiting the more mainstream art-house features – for example, the currently showing “Brokeback Mountain” – and those films far below the radar of most casual theater-goers, such as the forthcoming “Naked in Ashes,” a documentary about Indian yogis that opens this Sunday.

The theater, which sees more than a quarter million patrons every year, has nothing but a bright future, Collins said. “A year ago there was an article in the New York Times about us,” he said.

“This year we were invited to participate in Sundance. We look to be a world-class institute for the exhibition and promotion of cinema culture.”

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