Thebuying mania that has become one of the signatures of the Sundance FilmFestival is likely to be focused on just a small handful of festival titlesthis year, say those who have caught an early glimpse of this year's line-up.

Normallythe presence of at least four well-financed indie distributors - Artisan, USA,Lions Gate and now the new entity being forged by CanWest - alongside thevarious aggressive specialist divisions would create ideal conditions forbidding wars.

Butthis year's event is taking place in an extremely harsh theatrical climate forindependent films: distributors are devoting more and more resources on theirown productions and straying only occasionally to acquire films that haveidentifiable selling points.

Asformer Miramax development executive Jack Lechner pointed out in his keynotespeech during last week's International Film Financing Conference in SanFrancisco: "The day of the nice little movie is over. Kaput. The oldindependent boom has been absorbed by the mainstream." With the market soflooded, the vast majority of truly independent films, "will more likelysit there, collecting debt and dust while the filmmakers try and figure outwhat went wrong," Lechner said.

Thisyear's star-heavy World Premiere section is ample proof of just how involveddistributors have become in their own production pipelines. Only two films -Gurinder Chadha's What's Cooking and Brad Anderson's Happy Accidents- arrive without US distribution already locked in place. Besides this pair,the only other headline title that might interest buyers is Emilio Estevez' RatedX, which was made as a cable original for Showtime.

Thedearth of World Premiere product will inevitably shift the acquisition focus onto the US independent productions that make up the Dramatic Competition andAmerican Spectrum sidebars, and even open the door to some foreign pick-upsfrom the often overlooked World Cinema category.

Pre-festivalbuzz can prove dangerously misleading, especially now that movierepresentatives have become shrewd enough to pre-screen titles such as TwoFamily House to opinion-forming critics such as Harry Knowles Nevertheless certain entries are gathering some heat, amongthem American Psycho and Crime And Punishment In Suburbia. AmericanPsycho is receiving attention for no other reason than the disputed NC-17certificate that has been slapped on the film by the Motion Picture Associationof America as a result of an explicit sex scene involving Christian Bale's leadcharacter and two prostitutes played by UK's Cara Seymour and Canada's KristaSutton.

Amongthe potential pick-ups is Stacy Cochran's competition entry Drop Back Ten,starring James LeGros and Amber Valletta. A comic tale about an entertainmentjournalist who becomes too close to his subject, this film is bound to resonatewith the Sundance media posse and catch the attention of buyers. Also earmarkedfor purchase is Henry Bromell's Panic, an American Spectrum entry thatprovides another showcase for the acting talents of indie stalwart William H.Macy. Meanwhile, international stand-outs are said to include Germany's Oi!Warning, France's Human Resources and the UK's Saving Grace(all profiled in Screen International's weekly edition, Jan 14).

Butnot all is lost for the films that will inevitably be passed over by theatricalbuyers at Sundance, because every other distribution medium from television tothe internet is on the prowl for film product.

Blockbusterand Sundance Channel announced this week a joint acquisition scheme that allowup to six independent film titles per year from this festival and others aroundthe world to at least enjoy access to the small screen. Films acquired by thisbuying tandem will be made available exclusively at Blockbuster video stores acrossthe US for a six month period. They will also receive their televisionpremieres on the Sundance Channel thirty days into the home video window andthen remain in the library for a period of 18 months. Blockbuster is owned byViacom, the media conglomerate that operates the Sundance Channel inpartnership with Robert Redford.