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‘Class of 2013’ arrives at Sundance

– It’s that time of year again when a tiny ski-resort town becomes the place to be for anyone in show business – stars and directors, distribution executives, musicians, unknown filmmakers hoping that people might want to hear the stories they tell.

Opening today, the Sundance Film Festival takes over Park City for a week and a half every January. Anything resembling a theater is booked with screenings. Directors and their casts trudge snowy streets to introduce films and do interviews. Bars and restaurants are stuffed with people talking deals, or just talking about something crazy or unexpected they just saw on screen.

“It’s almost like Burning Man. Once a year, this tiny little town that then transforms itself into kind of a crazy film city for 10 days out of the year,” said writer-director Lynn Shelton, a Sundance regular (“Humpday,” “Your Sister’s Sister”) who returns this year with “Touchy Feely,” starring Rosemarie DeWitt as a massage therapist suddenly struck by an aversion to touching others. “It’s crammed with people all there for one reason. Whatever relationship they have to the industry, they’re all there for the love of films.”

The top U.S. showcase for independent cinema, Sundance has grown along with the do-it-yourself film world and has played a huge role in creating opportunities for low-budget filmmakers to get their work made and seen.

Robert Redford added the festival in 1985 as an offshoot of his Sundance Institute that offers professional support to indie filmmakers.

Now the name Sundance is almost a synonym for the possibilities of independent film. The festival helped launch the careers of filmmakers such as Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino and has premiered such Academy Award winners and nominees as “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Precious,” “Winter’s Bone” and last year’s top Sundance prize winner, “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

Actress and filmmaker Lake Bell, who directed a short film that premiered at Sundance in 2011 and co-starred in last year’s festival feature “Black Rock,” said coming to Park City in January reminds her of going back to college.

There’s a campus spirit among festival organizers, audiences and especially the filmmakers, said Bell, who returns this time with her feature directing debut, “In a World ...”, in which she plays a woman struggling to follow in her father’s career as a voice-over star.

Festival organizers even like to call the year’s group of filmmakers the “Class of 2013.”

Like college, Sundance is a safe haven, a place of camaraderie and mentoring before graduates have to head into the real world – in the case of filmmakers, before they have to cope with the business side of show business.

“Sundance is right before the scary stuff starts. The judgment and the reviews and the forums, all that silly stuff,” Bell said. “It’s the purity before the storm.”

Festival director John Cooper jokes that he would not mind a real storm – something to maintain that purity and keep the real world from intruding on the little bubble of creative expression that is Sundance.

“I hope we all do get snowed in,” Cooper said.