If it's January that means Sundance is once again upon us and the Park City institution appears ready to make some noise in what has become a very busy month for entertainment fans. Before the festival begins, much of the publicity and hype usually centers on the star-driven films in the U.S. Dramatic Competition and Premieres categories, but by the time Saturday rolls around it's a jaw-dropping documentary or unexpected surprise ("Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Little Miss Sunshine") that really have people talking and have film lovers wondering when these titles will find their way to a theater in their hometown. It's a recurring scenario that has made Sundance America's premiere and, arguably, most important film festival.

Since the mid-90s, Sundance has transformed from an independent film showcase (still its primary directive) to Hollywood's most significant acquisition festival (for American moviegoers at least) to an awards season powerhouse. The festival may have an "off" year when the Oscar nominations are announced tomorrow morning, but a year without an official Sundance press release reflecting on major narrative nominations are becoming few and far between. Sundance fuels more documentary contenders than any other institution and is a prestige powerhouse when it comes to the major categories. All you need to know is that the next Carey Mulligan revelatory turn ("An Education"), Jennifer Lawrence breakthrough ("Winter's Bone") or unexpected Oscar-winning turn (Mo'Nique in "Precious") will likely occur over the next week or so in the mountains of Utah.

This year's festival program is noteworthy for a U.S. Dramatic Competition that features more star power and a multitude of genres (we've never seen a zombie movie in competition before), documentaries that chronicle the fight for gay marriage ("The Case Against 8") and a 3D look at the current state of dance music ("Under the Electric Sky"); a World Dramatic Competition that includes an Iranian Vampire Western ("A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night"); and a sneak of the long-awaited and long-in-the-works Richard Linklater drama "Boyhood." Not bad, eh?

For more insight we took some time earlier this week to chat with Sundance Festival Director John Cooper and Director of Programming Trevor Groth about this year's festival. The duo reflected on the recurring themes they saw in submissions and selections, explained the genesis of this year's Free Fail day of programming, provided details on what new features attendees will find on the ground and gave a few suggestions on under-the-radar films ticket holders, press and industry shouldn't miss.


HitFix: For all the submissions you received, even for films you didn't select, were there any themes that stood out in terms of what sort of movies filmmakers have been making over the past year or so?

John Cooper: Not so much themes this year to tell you the truth. What made our selections hard is just an overall advancement in quality and originality from the independent film community. I chalk this up not just to digital technology and how it's upgraded the whole process of how you can make a film, but also sort of a step up from cinematographers to editors, market directions, all those components, even better-known seasoned actors choosing to do independent films. That's what we saw across the board from independent films this year.

Trevor Groth: We did find more filmmakers using specific genre elements to tell different kinds of stories that made their way out of our Park City at Midnight section, which is typically where the more genre films would play. And we have a number in our dramatic competition this year like "Life After Beth," which sort of fuses a young love story with a zombie story line. There's films like "Cold in July," which is an exciting thriller, "Sleepwalker," which is sort of a psychological horror film. And that was fun for us. We're always open to that but I think the ability to expand the repertoire of ways of telling independent stories now is accessible now to these filmmakers.

[Another interesting] theme was the power of music that we saw both in some of our narrative films as well as some of the documentaries. We have "Song One," "Whiplash" and "Low Down" in our dramatic competition all dealing with music and its impact on people's lives. In the documentary competition we have "Alive Inside," which sort of looks at one man's crusade to get music therapy into rest homes to help patients with Alzheimer's, and there's others as well.

John Cooper: I think another big genre is comedy, which has been growing from the independent film world, but the use of comedy across the board in all the programs, all the categories, and especially with women as protagonists in comedies. And with some recognizable names as well with Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Aubrey Plaza that Trevor mentioned from "Life After Beth," Jenny Slate in "Obvious Child." It's really interesting this sort of notion of women and being in a very defiant comedy place in the film.

With over a decade of experience in the movie industry, Ellwood survived working for two major studios and has written for Variety, MSN and the LA Times. A co-founder of HitFix, Ellwood spends his time relaxing hitting 3’s on the basketball court and following his beloved Clippers.