Sundance's reputation as a capricious marketplace has led several sales agents this year to downplay the commercial prospects of the films they will represent in Park City. Manufactured hype has a history here of being hurled back at producers' faces faster than they can say snow-ball.

Every year the Sundance Film Festival confounds advance predictions about which films will be snapped up first, the inevitable result perhaps of a selection process that places a premium on non-formulaic, risk-taking films that resist easy pigeonholing.

Tellingly, even the famous Sundance 'discoveries' that become breakthrough success-stories for their debut directors - films such as Reservoir Dogs, You Can Count On Me and now In The Bedroom - only truly caught fire many months after the festival had finished. Moreover, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the amount of money committed to a film in Park City and its eventual performance at the box office.

If anything, this year's crop of selections arrive with an even greater element of unpredictability as a result of some decidedly uncompromised storytelling. The line-up is generally "much darker" than usual, affirms Cassian Elwes, the William Morris talent agent who has been at the centre of several previous Sundance deal flurries including Miramax' ill-judged multi-million dollar grab of Happy Texas.

This year, Elwes and his WMA Independent cohort Rena Ronson represent as many as ten of this year's Sundance offerings including Gerry, The Dancer Upstairs, The Good Girl and Bloody Sunday. Each has its own commercial complications despite the pedigree of talent involved. The $7m Gerry, for example, may mark the much-anticipated reunion of director Gus Van Sant with his Good Will Hunting actor Matt Damon, but it is defiantly an art movie that returns Van Sant to the indie filmmaking fringes with a bang, says Elwes. "I hope somebody will take a risk on it."

That all said, no one doubts Sundance's credentials as a deal-making hothouse, a status that has been finally acknowledged with the creation this year of a fledgling sales office to make life easier for buyers and movie reps to find each other in a rarefied mountain resort where cell phones fight for air-space. Even the festival's patron saint, Robert Redford, has come to recognise Sundance's commercial benefits for all his perpetual misgivings about the "merchant mentality of distribution" that descends on his creative oasis.

"Sundance is far and away the biggest market for North American rights, no other event comes even a close second," insists Cinetic Media's John Sloss, who last year registered $14m worth of deals over the course of the ten-day event and who this arrives with another hatful of prospects including Coastlines, Tadpole, Better Luck Tomorrow and The Slaughter Rule.

The majority of Sloss' distribution business last year was closed with the major Hollywood studios, principally the specialist arm of 20th Century Fox which grabbed Super Troopers, Waking Life and The Deep End in worldwide deals. The only territorial exception in Fox Searchlight's buying spree was Italy, where the late Kermit Smith made a pre-emptive early bid for local rights to The Deep End, proving how aggressively independent buyers have to fight in order to prise even the quirkiest of titles out of the clutches of the global conglomerates.

That shouldn't stop foreign buyers from attending Park City, argues Sloss, even at the considerable expense involved. "Although in terms of foreign deals, Sundance has been somewhat spotty and the attendance only anecdotal, I still believe it's great hunting ground for those with their own buying sensibility. For them the choice is bidding for the hot films in Park City or else having to buy them later from sales agents who then pass on the cost of having overpaid for them."

As an example of a suitably distinctive buyer Sloss points to ARP of France, which last year grabbed both Haiku Tunnel and Jump Tomorrow during the festival itself.

William Morris' Elwes and Ronson also believe in the value of international distributors attending Sunday if only to cement ties with filmmakers at the onset of their careers. "If it's to see films ahead of time, it is beneficial for international buyers to attend, and it's good for them to see and meet up-and-coming film-makers. Most of them had to use their parents' money, after all, so they are anxious to meet new sources of finance," says Elwes. Furthermore, so many of the auteurs that have gone on to established careers tend to work regularly with the same set of preferred distributors across the leading territories whenever they venture outside the studio system.

Foreign buyers could, adds Ronson, make a quick buy, even if it's not directly from the producer. Patrick Wachsberger of Summit Entertainment, for example, famously closed a trio of foreign deals on The Blair Witch Project the same week that his partner Artisan had bought worldwide rights at Sundance 1999. But, say Elwes and Ronson, price is everything, and if a studio can come in to buy multi-territorial rights, so much the better for the film-maker.

Paramount Classics, Sony Classics, Miramax Films and Fox Searchlight pursues multi-territory pick-ups on a regular basis and so also now does Fine Line Features, working in tandem with New Line International. "It worked for us when we bought worldwide rights on The Anniversary Party," says Fine Line president Mark Ordesky, "so we are interested in doing more dual acquisitions. It can often give you the edge in a domestic deal if you can take other territories as well".

The fact that the Hollywood heavyweights have come to dictate so much of the buying momentum at Sundance does not always sit so easily with the international contingent that comes to Utah, either in support of their own films or in search of others.

"There are less buyers in Sundance than there used to be and fewer good surprises available to them," laments Mercure Distribution's Jacques Le Glou, who will unveil both Vivante and L'Afrance in Park City. "Major US companies and US studios now board many independent projects way ahead of the others, securing worldwide rights. This lessens Sundance's impact as a market. However, the event keeps its artistic aura."

Le Glou is happy that Vivante will receive its official world premiere at Sundance, even at the risk of being sidelined in a World Cinema sidebar that inevitably takes a backseat to the dramatic competition entries and high-profile US premieres. "It is a label of quality," believes Le Glou "The films will be seen by US distributors and reviewed in the US."

But Le Glou himself will not be attending Sundance, preferring instead to direct his energies towards Unifrance's overlapping Paris Screenings (Jan 11-15) (see separate story). "For French sales companies, Europe's remains their best client," he explains. "There will be more than 180 European buyers on hand in Paris for the screenings and I will be selling Vivante and L'Afrance there too."

Gary Hamilton, general manager of Australia's Beyond Films, is not quite so ambivalent about Sundance. He strongly believes every film has an equal chance at the festival, irrespective of where it's showing. He sees no critical difference, for example, between the commercial viability of the various sections and cites the recent year successes of Saving Grace and The Castle