THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Filmgoers, fame mix in dry, icy Utah

Email|Print| Text size + By Anthony Flint
Globe Staff / December 28, 2003

PARK CITY, Utah -- Craning for a glimpse of J-Lo, we settled for word that Daniel Radcliffe, the young man who plays Harry Potter, had hurried into the Project Greenlight party. Main Street looked like the red carpet outside the Oscars, festooned with velvet ropes and paparazzi and celebrity-seekers, while lights twinkled in million-dollar condos off the slopes of Deer Valley in the distance.

Though we had an invitation, getting to the door was impossible. The middle-of-the-mob decision: Split this scene and retire to Mother Urban's Ratskeller for pilsner with the locals. Our quads were pretty tight from ripping groomers at "Bambi Basin," Deer Valley's affectionate nickname. Besides, we had seen Holly Hunter and Morgan Freeman at that morning's screening of "Levity," and hey, wasn't that Richard Schiff from "The West Wing" in the doorway of Harry O's?

This is the way to keep score at the Sundance Film Festival, coming up again in all its fabulousness Jan. 15-26: hot tickets scored, celebrities spotted, cocktails secured amid Utah's forbidding liquor laws. Like the Kentucky Derby or the New Orleans Jazz Festival, Sundance, the brainchild of Robert Redford for the promotion of independent, moderate-budget filmmaking, has become a major scene.

Hollywood descends on this little mining town like an invasion, all Armani sunglasses and white Hummer limos. The unconnected are more likely to end up viewing an early-morning cartoon short than a premiere, and if you don't have this year's parabolic skis, prepare to feel like a second-class citizen. It's not for everybody and a sense of humor is required.

That said, it's possible to infiltrate Sundance and come away satisfied, in a bubble-gum-chewing, lighthearted sort of way. The skiing is great, the Barolo at Chez Betty's is zesty, and you might even get to see -- before anybody else -- some truly artsy movies that turn out to be commercial successes.

For those of us without a second home in Utah and lacking Matt Damon's cellphone number, the first step is to log on to the Sundance Film Festival website: www.sundance.org. It's a comprehensive site and quite sensitive to ordinary people's desire to make the most out of the experience.

A game plan is mandatory. You can go to the public parties and try to get into others, you can walk up and down Main Street and bump into the glitterati, and of course you can ski, but the reason to visit Park City during Sundance is to see some films, and that requires planning. The festival provides the schedule and even a work sheet to map out the logistics.

There are 12 theaters -- six in Park City, a 40-minute drive from Salt Lake City up the big hills of the Wasatch Rangefour in Salt Lake City; one in Ogden and one in Sundance Village itself (in North Fork, Provo Canyon), both about an hour from Park City. Big premieres tend to be in Salt Lake City early on, and the rest of the fun is to be had in Park City.

Decide what you want to see, and then be prepared for the reality check of what you can actually get into.

If you don't know producers or actors, there is always buying access. The express and priority passes ($1,500 to $2,500, limited availability) are credentials that allow a casual saunter up to any venue 15 minutes before screening; choices for films and panel discussions can be made upon arrival.

There are also ticket packages, ranging from $350 to $600 and often including an invite to a party, where you have to decide what you want to see, and when, but then it's all set and there's no waiting in line.

Next option: buying individual tickets. This is a bit more of a scramble. The best way to do it is online, but the website gets overburdened when the tickets go on sale on Jan. 6. Last year I went through all the steps in pursuit of four tickets to "The Singing Detective," submitted an American Express number, waited for what seemed like hours, and then everything went kaput. You can also try speed-dialing the telephone number, 877-SFF-TIXS or 877-733-8497, from 10a.m. to 6 p.m. Mountain time, beginning Jan. 6.

Some filmgoers swear by the day-of-show and waiting-list approach, which of course requires being in Park City bright and early and ready to run around. Tickets available for screenings are released every day beginning at 8 a.m. at the Gateway Center and Trolley Square box offices. You can also simply show up at the theater where the desired film is playing and try to get in on a waiting list. Numbered cards are handed out on a first-come, first-serve basis and called 30 minutes before screening time.

A benign form of scalping is also accepted practice. It's quite informal -- you run into people on the shuttle buses, in the bars, on the chairlift. Plans change, folks leave early, something better comes up, and tickets can be had for face value, just so they don't go to waste.

And then there are connections and favors owed and chits to call in, and that college buddy who moved to Salt Lake for the skiing and the biking, who can be persuaded or otherwise bribed to go down to the mall and wait in line for the batch of tickets made available to locals. Striding into "Levity" as if we were important people, we had many such benefactors to thank, including two locals and film producer James Burke, although even his access to tickets was limited.

This all might seem like too much work. But once you score some tickets -- generally the limit is four per person, $10 each -- and go to a few screenings and get a sense for what's being talked about, a certain exercising of the mind and the imagination takes place. Then it's time to hit the slopes.

Deer Valley is a personal favorite, though anyone who has ever skied Alta will consider it preposterously glitzy and pampered. But during Sundance, it just feels right to get the $7 turkey chili in a bread bowl at Empire Canyon Lodge, with all those oriental rugs and antlers all around. Deer Valley (www.deervalley.com) is well known for grooming its best trails so that every trip down is serene. There's also The Canyons (www.thecanyons.com) and Park City Mountain Resort (www.parkcitymountain.com). Remember to bring sunscreen and drink lots of water; the altitude varies from 6,800 to 10,000 feet.

Hanging out in Park City in the evening is also part of the Sundance experience, though the films go late into the night and sometimes it's possible to catch the most sought-after celluloid only first thing in the morning. Utah liquor laws are another hurdle; ask for beer that's not 3-2, and in some cases you'll have to join a "club" to be served alcohol, a painless transaction that usually just involves putting your name on a card.

Chez Betty is a fine destination, as is Mariposa at Deer Valley, Easy Street Brasserie, Nacho Mam's, and the Wasatch Brew Pub. The local Chamber of Commerce has a first-rate guide to absolutely everything, including accommodations, on its website, www.parkcityinfo.com. It's not the end of the world if you have to stay in Salt Lake. Metropolitan and Bambera are dining destinations there.

It can get chilly in Park City in January but not extraordinarily so. The dress code is "mountain chic," and although the LA people invariably come in Prada, footwear that can handle snow is wise. Driving a rental car is inadvisable as there's no place to park. There are shuttle buses and regular city buses, both free.

And when it's all over and you head back home via Salt Lake City's very pleasant airport, you can feel for a moment that you are truly one of the beautiful people. Even if you are flying commercial.

Anthony Flint is a member of the Globe staff. He can be reached at flint@globe.com.

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