LOS ANGELES — Actor Mark Webber has visited the Sundance Film Festival several times — his movies "Good Dick," ''The Good Life" and "Weapons" traveled there previously — but the 31-year-old indie film veteran had never been to Park City, Utah, as a director. Until now.
In selecting the 32 films for their 2012 narrative and documentary competitions, Sundance programmers cast a wide net, but some of the picks announced Wednesday by festival director John Cooper and programming head Trevor Groth inevitably featured familiar faces, albeit some in new jobs — like Webber.
Webber directed, wrote, executive produced and stars opposite his 2-year-old son, Isaac, in "The End of Love," an often improvised drama about a young father's coping with his wife's death, and how that loss changes his relationship with his young child.
"My whole goal was to get the film into Sundance — it's a true American independent movie," says Webber, whose feature, shot in a quick 28 days with his son working one-hour daily shifts, was bankrolled by Los Angeles restaurateur Mollie Engelhart. "I have this amazing sense of gratitude — it's a dream come true — and the highlight of my career," Webber says.
The filmmaker will have to schedule his Park City time carefully. He also stars in the romantic comedy "Save the Date," which will play opposite "The End of Love" in Sundance's dramatic competition, and he has a prominent role in the comedy "For a Good Time Call...," which is eligible for Sundance's premiere section (those titles will be announced Monday).
For the Jan. 19-29 festival, the nation's premiere gathering for movies made outside the studio system, Cooper, Groth and their bleary-eyed programming team sifted through 4,042 feature films (up from 3,812 for the 2011 festival) and about 7,500 short films, an increase of about 1,000 shorts from a year ago. In addition to the U.S. narrative and documentary competition works, Wednesday's announcement included 14 films in the world dramatic and 12 films in the world documentary contest.
Sundance's 110 features come from 31 countries and include 87 world premieres and 44 first-time filmmakers — 26 of them in competition — in categories that also include documentary and dramatic premieres, midnight movies, extreme low-budget and experimental works, and media installations and multimedia performances.
Among the returning Sundance alumni: Todd Louiso (2002's Sundance premiere "Love Liza"), who directed the competition drama "Hello I Must Be Going," a look at a 35-year-old woman moving back in with her parents; Ira Sachs (2005's "Forty Shades of Blue"), who made the autobiographical love story "Keep the Lights On"; documentarian Kirby Dick's (2006's "This Film is Not Yet Rated") "The Invisible War," about the rape of U.S. soldiers; and Eugene Jarecki (2011's "Reagan"), whose new nonfiction film is "The House I Live In," a look at the war on drugs.
Jonathan Schwartz, the producer who brought "Like Crazy" to Sundance in January, where it sold to Paramount Pictures and Indian Paintbrush for about $4 million, is returning next year with two films, James Ponsoldt's alcoholism dramedy "Smashed" and Ry Russo-Young's sexually charged drama "Nobody Walks," both in the dramatic competition.
"Smashed" was still shooting in October. But the filmmakers crashed a fast post-production schedule so they could unveil the movie in Park City, where scores of buyers look for new movies to distribute. "For an independent filmmaker, Sundance is simply the best platform out there," Schwartz says. But he wanted to temper the prospects. You never expect anything," he says. "Just because 'Like Crazy' was a success doesn't mean much. As far as I'm concerned we're starting with a clean slate."
Cooper and Groth said they and the programmers were struck by how many films were made by and starred women, and how focused the films were on personal, uncalculated storytelling. "We used to see a lot of what we considered low-budget studio films. And those are dying out," Groth says.
Adds Cooper: "Do artists thrive in challenging times? I think they do — they throw caution to the wind." And, like Webber's "The End of Love," Sundance filmmakers are reexamining the most basic of life's connections — family, parenting, relationships. "And they're doing it with a modern spin," Cooper says, "more independent in nature."