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Tech plays supporting role at Sundance festival

More than half of this year's films will screen in a high-definition format, but technology can be found offscreen as well.

Filmmakers will play the starring roles at the 2006 annual Sundance Film Festival, a 10-day independent film showcase opening Thursday night in Park City, Utah.

And though not eligible for an Oscar, technology will play a supporting role, whether capturing and projecting real-life images onto a big screen, or letting viewers around the globe see festival offerings with an ever-expanding online program.

"Technology continues to emerge as a tool for filmmakers to turn to," said Ian Calderon, the Sundance Institute's director of digital initiatives. "It's more sophisticated, more elegant, easier to use and less expensive."

Calderon, who has been on the board since Robert Redford founded the institute in 1981, was there in the early days of video, when it was considered a threat to film. Now, with more than half of the 193 Sundance films screening in a high-definition format, it's all about digital.

"It's really been marvelous to watch the subtle organic transition," Calderon said, adding that filmmakers are no longer basing their film-versus-digital decisions purely on economics or speed. "It's an aesthetic decision....And in the end, what matters most to the theatergoer is not what technology is used, but 'have I been told a good story'."

At this year's festival, which runs through Jan. 29, 52 percent of the films will be shown on Sony HDcam, the only video format the festival uses, said Mike Plante, the festival's presentation manager. With the exception of two 16mm films, the rest will screen on 35mm projectors, he said.

Just more than 30 percent of the films were actually made using a digital format, Plante added. The rest were shot on 35mm or 16mm film, save a few that used other formats.

Technology at the festival, however, is not just about what's on the screens in the festival's 12 theater venues (including three in Salt Lake City). It's an integral part of other festival offerings, many of which are sponsored by high-tech companies, including Adobe Systems, Hewlett-Packard and Intel.

Sundance from your home
Most notably--at least for those interested in film but unwilling or unable to fight crowds and cold in Park City--is the festival Web site and its expanded programming. This year, 50 of the 73 filmmakers chosen to participate in the highly competitive Shorts Program have agreed to let their work be streamed on the Web. That's up from the number of willing filmmakers last year, a trend reflective of how filmmakers are viewing the Internet as a tool for film distribution, said Sundance Online Producer Joseph Beyer.

Buyer pointed out that the Shorts Program is considered a showcase of the best work from emerging filmmakers. There were 4,327 submissions in dramatic, documentary and animated categories. Click here (PDF) for the full Shorts Program lineup.

This is the sixth year for the online festival, but the model was significantly revamped last year, Beyer said. Instead of a separate online film competition, a decision was made to treat the site as a regular festival venue for the Shorts category. Sundance is now the only major film festival to premiere films on the Internet in conjunction with their live premieres, according to a press statement.

The online response to change last year was incredible, Beyer said, noting the 40,000 e-mails sent by viewers from around the globe expressing gratitude for the free online Shorts Program, this year underwritten by Adobe Systems.

"They felt like they were part of the festival," he said. "We realized, Redford too, that our true audience has yet to reveal itself. It's a global audience."

Other Sundance Online offerings include podcasts of panel discussions. One such discussion, "Brave New World, Entertainment and Social Change," will focus on new and more mobile content distribution and its effect on film.

Sprint is underwriting the production of Live@Sundance, 20 video segments on the festival that will be available on the Web site and on Sprint phones.

A technology-related venue at the festival is the Film Center, formerly the Digital Center, which will feature an array of cameras and projectors, hands-on workshops and forums and discussion on the convergence of art and technology.

One of the likely topics of discussion at the Film Center is emerging methods of distribution. "We live in the 1,000 channel universe. How is someone going to find your film?" Calderon asked.

The Film Center is also home to the Digital Cafe, sponsored by Hewlett-Packard, where festivalgoers can check their e-mail. HP is also sponsoring the HP Snapshot Cafe. There, attendees can pick up free prints of candid shots taken by staff members throughout the festival. The company is also providing computers and wireless zones at all festival offices and official venues.

Intel, among other things, is hosting its Intel Digital Experience Zone, where festivalgoers can experience movies, music, games and more with the company's latest in home, mobile and handheld computers.

Other technology-related festival sponsors include DirecTV, Moviefone and Sony Electronics.