The Sundance Film Festival got off with a semi-rocky start with the premiere of the new drama "Howl" tonight as well as a slate of original shorts and the Afghanistan war doc "Restrepo" (which we're still awaiting word on).  It wasn't that the quality of films was awful -- more on that later -- but the enthusasim seems a bit muted this year.  Perhaps its just the snow, the smaller press office, the less hectic Main St. scene (at least so far) or rumors the festival has $2 million less in operating budget than previous years (contrary to Redford's sunny outlook at the state of the festival earlier in the day).  In any event, it didn't help that the signature premiere, "Howl," was certainly not among the best opening night film of the last few years.

James Franco is pretty impressive, gives it his all, [insert the appropriate cliche here] as famed poet Allen Ginsburg, but the narrative debut of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman ("The Life and Times of Harvey Milk") isn't sure what it really wants to be. Is it about Ginsberg?   Is it about the obscenity trial regarding Ginsberg's poem "Howl"?  Is it meant to explain the poem itself?  Tackling all three at one time was clearly beyond the filmmakers ability.  Needless to say, whoever convinced Ginsburg and Epstein to depart from their eight years of work on the subject matter as a strict documentary provied bad advice.  As for the picture's other notable names: Jon Hamm, Mary Louise-Parker, Treat Williams and Bob Balaban, they are barely in the film.  Still, Hamm, Balaban and Williams took the time to come up to Park City for the festival faithful and you have to hand them for supporting the flick considering whether it will ever hit a theater near you remains a huge question mark.

As a potential pickup "Howl" is not very commercial, but might appeal to a small distributor such a Magnolia or IFC Films.  It's also theoretically possible an even smaller distributor will come on board before the feature eventually finds its way to DVD (yes it's that difficult a sell). 

Ironically, "Howl's" selection as an opening night film may be because the festival was criticized for programming too many "commercial" flicks such as "Friends with Money" and "In Bruges" in that slot over the past few years.  They then tried to mix it up with more daring fare such as "Chicago 10," "Mary and Max" and now "Howl."  Suggestion to the programmers: a more effective crowd pleaser might go along way to jump starting the festival overall in 2011.  Unsolicited advice, but worth considering.

After the premiere, this pundit stopped by a fun and low-key shindig at the Indiewire crew's condo.  Sundance is full of these smaller little get togethers and it's always a good way to reconnect with East Coast colleagues.  Plus, it's a great enviorment to meet programmers who can give you the scoop on what to see and what to avoid over the next week or so (and yes, notes were taken). 

The fun part of the night, however, was the late-starting "Howl" after party at Village at the lift. The space was a tad small, but Franco, Hamm and guests such as Sundance juror Morgan Spurlock, "X-Men" director Bryan Singer and, um, Shane West were all enjoying the festive atmosphere. As for myself, a historic moment occurred.  After six Sundance Film Festivals, I finally took the time to engage in a snow sport activity (this from an avid skier growing up).  No, not downhill skiing, tube sledding down the hill outside the "Howl" party.  And boy, that made the night.

The festival really kicks off tomorrow with Ben Affleck and Tommy Lee Jones in "The Company Men," Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman in "Hesher" and much, much more.

Oh, and those little SAG Awards might be given out as well.