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You would never know it from watching the E! Channel, but the most indispensable people at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival are not actors or filmmakers or even patron saint Robert Redford.
In a pinch, you could show the movies without them. But you couldn't stage the festival, which kicks off tonight in Park City, without the crews who safeguard the 193 films, shuttle them to the right theaters, run them through the projectors and make sure they look good onscreen.
Just ask Sundance print traffic coordinator Roger M. Mayer, who recalls rushing a Spanish film to Peery's Egyptian Theatre in Ogden three years ago. By the time he arrived with the film reel, 45 minutes late, an expectant crowd greeted him.
"I pulled up in front of the theater and they were all waiting outside," he says. "People were cheering and clapping."
Mayer is one of a tight-knit crew who work behind the scenes at the festival's print office, an unheralded Park City building where all the movies are prepped, stored between screenings and locked up overnight. Where is it? He's not telling. Because of theft and piracy concerns, the print office's location rivals Dick Cheney's Wyoming hideaway as the best-kept secret in the Intermountain West.
"People's dreams are in here," says Mayer of his precious creative cargo, which can make or break filmmakers' careers almost overnight. "If one of these films is lost or gets [illegally] duplicated, a lot of people would get screwed."
With up to 75 public screenings daily in Park City, Ogden, Salt Lake City and at the Sundance resort above Provo Canyon, getting each film to the right place at the right time can be an intricate and grueling task. The folks at the Sundance print office are a tireless bunch who survive on fast food and little sleep. Mayer says he works 20 hours a day during the festival and starts each day with four cans of Red Bull.
Sundance has come a long way since the mid-1990s, when directors often arrived in Utah with their films under their arm. Today the festival requires prints to be shipped ahead of time so that Sundance staffers can check them for damage or other problems.
"We want to make sure the print looks good before we take it to the theater," says Chris Myers, the festival's print shipping coordinator. "We don't want there to be any surprises."
Myers grew up in Park City and is such a film buff that he used to skip school to catch Sundance movies. Now he's in charge of making sure all the films arrive in Park City before the festival and are shipped back immediately after the 11-day event ends Jan. 29. In early January it's not unusual for Myers to get a 3 a.m. phone call from a director in some farflung place like South Korea, pleading for more time to tinker with his movie.
Then there's Mayer, who supervises 10 volunteer print runners who drive the films to and from the theaters in Ford Expeditions. The print runners are among the only festival staffers who can park with impunity in front of a theater, but they still must navigate snow and climb stairs while shouldering large film reels that can weigh 70 pounds or more. "Dogville," a three-hour Nicole Kidman drama that played the 2004 festival, required two runners to carry.
"Because there are so many films going all over the place you occasionally lose track," says Mayer, who nevertheless has never lost a film for more than a few minutes. "You get one wave out, and then the next wave is there in front of you. It's constant."
Finally, projection manager Bill Hill employs a roster of experienced projectionists, many of them veterans of Hollywood screening rooms, to show the movies. Sundance's projection equipment has improved since 1999, when a faulty projector at the Tower Theatre in Salt Lake City mangled a print of "Judy Berlin." But directors still fret.
Anxious filmmakers badger Sundance projectionists every year about improving the look and sound of their movie. Quentin Tarantino spent much of a 1992 screening of "Reservoir Dogs" in a Tower Theatre projection booth, fiddling with the controls. Many directors are so filled with adrenaline at their premieres that it dulls their hearing and they ask the projectionist to turn up the sound, Mayer says.
The biggest drawback to working at the Sundance Film Festival print office? Staffers there rarely have time to see the films. At the end of his day, Mayer sometimes catches midnight shows at Park City's Egyptian Theatre. And Myers only stays for the first few minutes of each screening to make sure the print looks OK.
"So I can tell you how a lot of films started," he says with a chuckle. "I have no idea how a lot of films end."
The Sundance Film Festival opens today and runs through Jan. 29 at venues in Park City, Salt Lake City, Ogden and Sundance Resort. Day-of-show tickets are released every morning at 8 at the main box offices at the Gateway Center (136 Heber Ave., Park City) and Salt Lake City's Trolley Square. Tickets for the day's first show are released at 8 a.m. the previous day. Tickets for evening screenings that start after the box office closes may be purchased (cash only) at the venue. All tickets must be bought in person.
Visit http://www.sltrib.com for complete coverage throughout the festival's run.