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Originally published Sunday, January 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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Sundance shines its light on Seattle films

Sundance showcases three Seattle-made films: Lynn Shelton's "Humpday," David Russo's "The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle" and Bobcat Goldthwait's "World's Greatest Dad."

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This year's Sundance Film Festival marked a watershed for Seattle's film industry, with three movies made in the city premiering at the nation's largest venue for independent film.

The festival ends today in Park City, Utah, prompting the question: What happens next?

For Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton, it's basking in the warmth of a festival success beyond her wildest imagination. The movie she wrote and directed, "Humpday," premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition and became one of the most talked-about movies at the festival.

The "bromantic comedy" about two heterosexual male friends who decide to make a porn film starring themselves was also one of the first to attract buyers' attention. It quickly became the subject of an intense multiday bidding war, an atypical event in a year of tightened distribution budgets.

Magnolia Pictures emerged victorious and will release the movie first via video-on-demand and then in August in theaters in at least 15 cities.

"They won us over immediately. They seemed passionate about the film and thought with the right marketing, it could get to a wider audience than you would normally get for a small film like this," said Shelton on Tuesday, exhausted after five days of celebration and negotiation.

At least 60 percent of sale proceeds will go to the film's largely Seattle-based cast and crew, many of whom worked for no pay in exchange for a cut of the back-end profits.

"I'm looking forward to feeling like Santa Claus," Shelton said. "These are the most deserving people in the world, as far as I'm concerned."

Shelton won over audiences and critics with the way she handled the movie's premise, as the men's plan ultimately forces them to explore deeper issues about their identities and relationships.

Judging by audience reaction, "I think we really get away with it," Shelton said. "They're fully fleshed out and they're believable. You really think these guys might go through with this."

The film gave Alycia Delmore, a lifelong Seattle resident and stage actor, her first starring movie role as the wife of one of the men. Like the rest of the cast, Delmore was paid in shares of the movie, which means she wasn't sure of getting a paycheck until the movie found a distributor.

Though the arc of the plot was carefully planned, there was no written script, which allowed the actors to largely play themselves on screen.

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"People come up to me and say, 'That's exactly what I would have done!' " said Delmore, who describes her role as "the one character on the screen watching it through the same lens as the audience."

A big "Little Dizzle"

On Monday, David Russo's "The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle" got a boisterous ovation at its premiere in the Library Theater, the exact place Russo always dreamed his movie would play. "I was very excited to find that the movie functioned very much the way I'd envisioned," Russo said.

Even more than "Humpday," his offbeat story about men who unwittingly find themselves in a state of quasi-pregnancy requires the audience to go along with a quirky premise. He was gratified to hear the audience laugh, then get caught up in the emotional climax.

"It was fun to watch all that take hold, because the audience seemed to be really with it. You can laugh with and at the film at the same time, and that's quite a feat," he said.

He credited his Seattle producer, Peggy Case, with making the six-year project a reality.

"She doesn't have a Rolodex of millionaires. She just has willpower," Russo said.

Although he managed to sell the Australian rights to the movie shortly after the premiere, he anticipates it will be difficult to get wide distribution in the U.S.

"The industry is feeling really timid right now, and this veers away from a lot of genres they love to gobble."

Seattle appeal

Comedian Bobcat Goldthwait shot his latest film, "World's Greatest Dad," in Seattle.

"I prefer to make movies so they don't look like they're from Los Angeles," Goldthwait said after the Tuesday premiere, adding that he liked the idea of shooting the dark comedy under overcast skies but was thwarted by unusually sunny June weather.

A good proportion of the cast was from Seattle, including many who played students at the high school where the action takes place. Locals will recognize it as the former F.A. McDonald School in Wallingford.

Goldthwait chose Seattle partly because he and the movie's star, Robin Williams, remembered it fondly from their days as stand-up comedians. (Goldthwait occasionally opened for Nirvana, and the movie features a cameo by Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic.)

At the premiere, Williams made an unprompted pitch for the city. "It's a great place to shoot a movie," he said, "especially when you have little or no money."

That sentiment pleased Amy Lillard Dee, director of the statewide nonprofit WashingtonFilmWorks office that helped lure the production with incentives and production help.

"What we're hoping to do is corner the independent film market," she said.

People involved in Seattle film see this as a sign of progress, even as it's hard to say whether the momentum will continue.

Both "Humpday" and "Little Dizzle" relied on creative financing, including grants from foundations.

"I think there's something to be said for creating really excellent stuff with that sort of DIY sensibility that Seattle has had for the past 20 years," said Lyall Bush, director of the Northwest Film Forum, which helped fund "Little Dizzle" through its Start-to-Finish grant.

These films' successes "ought to say that this is the beginning of something big, and I hope that's the case," Bush said.

He believes Seattle already has two of the three legs it needs for a thriving movie industry: education and a permanent pool of talented crew. The third is the framework for raising money.

Bush hopes filmmakers can capture some of the venture capital Seattle puts into startup technology companies.

"The line between the storytelling in film and the storytelling that goes on online and in gaming is growing fainter and fainter," he said.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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