By Christine Kearney
PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - The Sundance Film Festival was set to open on Thursday night with four features, including a documentary examining America's housing crisis, the fractured American dream and values humbled by today's lackluster economy.
The documentary, "The Queen of Versailles," follows self-made billionaires Jackie and David Siegel who at first glance may not seem in touch with many Americans who have struggled in the current, downbeat economy. The film opens with the couple constructing their dream house: A 90,000 square foot mansion named "Versailles" inspired by the French palace.
But director Lauren Greenfield told Reuters the story eventually came to resemble many of the lessons learned by those who have lost their homes, jobs and experienced the effects of the economic crisis.
"The American dream has always been this idea of home ownership," Greenfield said, but the film shows the Siegels dealing with the impact of the economy, like many in the United States, and "how they downsize and cope with the situation," eventually rediscovering what is important to them.
"They do take on this everyman quality that ends up putting them nearer to us in terms of the overreaching of America and downsizing and getting back to core values," said Greenfield.
"Versailles" is one of several high-profile films here that show Americans tackling problems associated with the downturned economy and broken dreams.
"It's no secret that times are dark and grim," Robert Redford, whose Sundance Institute for filmmaking backs the festival, told reporters on Thursday.
10 DAYS; 100+ FILMS
Overall, there are more than 100 fiction and documentary films showing at the festival that runs for the 10 days in the ski resort town of Park City, Utah, east of Salt Lake City.
The other opening night screenings include two fictional tales, "Hello I Must Be Going" starring Melanie Lynskey as a demoralized, divorced 35-year-old who moves back in with her parents and "Wish You Were Here," an Australian film starring Joel Edgerton as a man clinging to a shattered family.
"Searching For Sugar Man," competing in the world documentary section, completes the opening night lineup. It is one of many films here centered on musicians and shows two fans looking into the mystery of how a would-be 1970s rock icon declined into obscurity.
Festival director John Cooper said the opening night films reflect the choice of more experienced directors or accomplished stories at the festival that prides itself on being a launch pad for careers and for premiering low-budget hits like "Little Miss Sunshine" and documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."
"Partly we look for filmmakers that are seasoned," he said addressing opening night. "We like a filmmaker who knows the ropes -- something that will play well."
Of all the opening films, Greenfield's "Versailles" is the most hyped. Adding to the buzz, the Siegels sued the filmmakers and Sundance for defamation over promotional materials for the film, but Greenfield said she could not comment on the lawsuit.
Coming into the festival, other films on which audiences and buyers are focused include Spike Lee's "Red Hook Summer," "Red Lights" with Sigourney Weaver and Robert De Niro and Stephen Frears' "Lay The Favorite" starring Rebecca Hall, Bruce Willis and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
"Bachelorette," with Kirsten Dunst and Isla Fisher tells of a group of young, single women casting aside bitterness at a hedonistic bachelorette party. Numerous other stars are expected to appear including Kate Bosworth, Chris Rock, Julie Delpy and Paul Simon as the tiny, snowy town transforms into promotional suites and film parties.
After a successful festival last year on the business end with more than two dozen films sold, buyers were optimistic coming into the festival after a downturn in the market that began about five years ago.
(Reporting By Christine Kearney; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)