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Mike Terry, Deseret News
Adam Clayton, left, Bono and The Edge from the Irish rock band U2 look over the crush of press photographers at the premiere of their documentary "U2 3D" at the Sundance Film Festival, inside the Eccles Center in Park City, Jan. 19, 2008.

Ground zero for star central.

That's how one Deseret News reporter referred to the streets and sidewalks of Park City for the 10 days each January when the Sundance Film Festival captures the attention of the film world.

For more than a quarter of a century, independent filmmakers have been coming to Sundance seeking an audience.

Initially known as the Utah/U.S. Film Festival, the event has blossomed from a showcase for independent, American-made films into a cultural phenomenon.

This year the festival opens Thursday and runs through Jan. 31, and in addition to film screenings by the dozens, tourists by the thousands will be rubber-necking their way down Park City's Main Street.

Deseret News photographers have taken pictures of the famous and near-famous over the festival's 25-year history, and for years before, as Utah's spectacular landscapes have lured Hollywood and independent moviemakers to the state. Photo researcher Ron Fox has uncovered many of these images which can now been seen on the newspaper Web site at deseretnews.com.

Hundreds of filmmakers have used Utah as the backdrop for their movies. Charlie Chaplin didn't film in Utah, but in the late 1910s, he hid out in a Utah hotel to edit a portion of his 1921 masterpiece "The Kid."

In the early decades of the movie industry, Salt Lake City was a common stop for actors promoting their films. In 1935, the Marx Brothers — Harpo, Chico and Groucho — invaded the city.

Several major movies were premiered in Utah, including "Union Pacific" in 1939, which brought director Cecil B. DeMille to town; and the blockbuster "Brigham Young," with Dean Jagger in the title role.

But in September 1978, members of the Utah Film Commission founded the Utah/US Film Festival as a way to attract more filmmakers to the state.

In a story in the Jan. 15, 1998, Deseret News, staff writer Chris Hicks wrote about the beginnings of what would become the Sundance Film Festival.

"It all began in 1978 with some 65 movies being shown over seven days in Salt Lake City's Trolley Corners theaters. They were primarily golden oldies (with an Americana theme, emphasizing Westerns). In fact, there were only six independent films in competition — plus two shown out of competition — selected from a mere 25 submissions from around the country," Hicks wrote.

The festival moved to Park City in 1981; four years later, Robert Redford's Sundance Institute took over management of the event, and it took off.

By 1990, Hollywood stars were a festival mainstay, movies premiered at the festival were making an impact in the box office and the event had a new name.

Hicks wrote on Jan. 14, 1990: "As often happens with this festival, stars began rolling in at the last minute, and now Clint Eastwood, Danny Glover and Jamie Lee Curtis are confirmed as festival participants.

"There will no doubt be other familiar faces from the big screen you'll recognize on the streets of Park City after Jan. 20 — but those are the major stars scheduled at this point.

"By the way, did you notice that the United States Film Festival has become the Sundance United States Film Festival?"

Just last year, festival organizers expressed dismay about "the celebrity- and paparazzi-laden sideshow that's become a real distraction from the Sundance Film Festival," wrote Deseret News film critic Jeff Vice.

"In fact, Redford calls such behavior 'sad and unfortunate,' insisting that it detracts from the festival's true artistic intentions.

"But despite their best efforts, the so-called star-gazing continues to remain as big a presence as the films themselves."

e-mail: mhaddock@desnews.com