PARK CITY, Utah -- It is typically during their first morning in town when most newcomers realize they have no clue how to approach the Sundance Film Festival, America's premier showcase for independent film.
For this reporter, the epiphany came during the premiere of the documentary "Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait." Back in 2005, seems that 17 cameras followed French soccer star Zinedine Zidane in "real time" throughout a meaningless match between his Real Madrid and Villareal.
But the film has no dialogue and no semblance of narrative, so despite some awesome original music by Mogwai, the finished product is an epic bore.
"I promise that will be the last film I see here," said an executive from a major production house.
The festival will screen several sports films and some highly controversial fare, but it's the revelry that has brought Hollywood and athletes here.
Just ask Packers running back Ahman Green, who has come to network with any backslapper who can help him establish a career as a movie producer. And in Park City, athletes -- like celebs -- have their run of the joint, where every shop and restaurant is transformed into a private party, and every "Hi, I play professional sports" is greeted with a "Thank you very much for coming" and "The other athletes are over there."
"Just like football, I need to work hard at networking and to learn the ins and outs of the movie business," Green says. "Sundance is like the Super Bowl. There, you network with the owners and GMs, guys who can help you down the road. It's the same here, except it's producers and directors who can get you into the game."
Still, for a newbie filmmaker, Green isn't pulling punches in his rookie effort as a partner in Xoom Entertainment. His first flick is the serious-minded "The Camel Wars," budgeted at $5-10 million, an Iraqi war flick seen through the eyes of a conflicted American soldier of Iraqi decent and Sunni Muslim faith, from Iranian director Sohrab Mirmontazeri.
"It'll be a provocative look at the Sunni insurgency, which has its roots in the seventh century," says Xoom CEO Mustafa Saied, adding that production will start this summer in New Mexico, Nevada and Morocco. "This is something our own government refused to acknowledge before going into war."
Green hopes to take an on-screen role in the film because acting, it seems, is another ambition. He'll be seen in Rob Schneider's "Big Stan," a comedy about a dorky con man imprisoned for fraud who learns kung fu to keep the hard-timers at bay. Green will play Diamond King, a member of a prison gang.
"I guess they thought I look menacing, because I'm the muscle of the gang," Green explains. "I only have a few lines, but Rob gave me props on my skills, so I know I'm on the right track."
Like Green and the rest of the vodka&Red Bull-guzzling Hollywood gentry, I avoided the flicks to spend my time among the "real" people to discover why ballers like Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart and Eagles wide receiver Donte' Stallworth came to a frigid city to mingle with every dingbat from Broadway to Hollywood -- and to find sports in Park City.
This is where the real drama unfolds. Think Las Vegas if it were to host the Super Bowl. So kind of like this year's NBA All-Star Game -- with boatloads of free designer undies.
Seen and heard at Sundance ...
Resurrecting the trip with "Resurrecting the Champ"
ESPN has transformed a three-story brick building into "The Game," an oasis for high-profile festivalgoers and athletes to take in drink, high-end bar food and every televised sporting event in the land.
The Game also hosted the afterparty for the premiere of "Resurrecting the Champ." The drama, which features a cameo by John Elway, stars Josh Hartnett as a down-on-his luck sportswriter who befriends a homeless man (Samuel L. Jackson) claiming to be deceased boxer Bob Satterfield.
"I got a pretty good idea of how you sports reporters position yourselves," Hartnett says. "I could see myself freelancing a little bit, but I don't have a journalistic bone in my body, so I'm not sure I could do what you're doing."
That's right. Remember that.
For research, Hartnett leaned on the film's director, Rod Lurie ("The Contender"), a former journalist and West Point boxer, who sympathizes with Hartnett's character: "As a reporter, I was screwed over many times by sleazy sources," Lurie says. "If you ever want to do a serious story on this, I'd be happy to sit down with you."
It's confirmed: This is officially not a "serious" story.
Garnering free panties with Eagles
Stallworth and Brian Westbrook are working Main Street under the cover of floating snow. Along the way, they encounter Christian Slater, one of the Baldwin brothers and Regina King.
As gawkers swarm, Stallworth fields party invites, poses for photos and generally yuks it up with inquiring Hollywood types.
"I've always wanted to be in the NFL, but I've always wanted to act, too" Stallworth explains. "It's a really, really big dream of mine."
"Donté's a fool," kids Westbrook, who isn't as amused by the gawkers. A sweet middle-aged lady creeps up.
"Excuse me," she says sheepishly. "Who are you?"
"Michael Jackson," Westbrook replies. The lady is confused, but covers her bet by snapping a few photos.
The teammates pop into the style suites at Village at the Lift, where vendors offer designer swag and several open bars to anyone famous. Their first stop is American Eagle Outfitters, where Aerie, a new women's line, is being unveiled. A PR type offers the ballers some pink panties. "These are much more comfortable than thongs," she says.
"If I see her, these are for Halle Berry," Stallworth says. "I've been loving Halle for a long time. Not liking her. Loving her."
The good life for sports types in Hollywood
The Sundance slate includes several films with direct ties to sports, including "Sk8 Life" -- a low-budget fictional drama about eight skateboarders (including pro Kris Foley) who band together to save legendary Crashpad Park -- and "Nanking," about Japan's invasion of China in 1937, which was produced by Capitals owner Ted Leonsis.
Elsewhere, pro skateboarder turned writer/director Stephen Berra is in town searching for a distributor for "The Good Life," his semi-autobiographical drama about a movie theater employee with little interest in football in a gridiron-obsessed Nebraska town.
"Being a skateboarder growing up in Omaha was tough. Once, a football player actually stepped out of his car to throw me 10 feet into a telephone pole," Berra says. "I didn't hate football. I just never had much an interest, so that's where that character is coming from."
Picabo and friends do good
Sundance was launched by Robert Redford in part to bring attention to environmental concerns, so amid the debauchery, much good is being done. Picabo Street carries the torch at Picabo's Ski Challenge VIP reception, a dinner that will precede a day on the slopes, all to benefit victims of child abuse.
"There's a whole generation of non-dreamers who are in sticky situations at home," Street explains. "I am trying to address the root of the problem, helping young people dream, and then fund them and help them chase their dreams."
Among the guests are some local politicos, Eagles linebacker Dhani Jones, and, according to the publicist announcing names along the red carpet, "Lance Bass' boyfriend."
Athletes as towelboys
At "MySpace at Tao," Diddy, Pharrell Williams and Mos Def are performing a private show. Among the VIPs are Jones, Leinart and Roger Clemens, and all are watching Packers fullback Will Henderson pass fresh towels to a sweat-drenched Mr. Def on stage. "Will is practicing being a roadie," Jones relays. "Seriously, he told Mos Def's PR person that he wants to travel with the band for a few weeks." Beyond his interest in toweling, Henderson says he and teammate Mark Tauscher came to show, um, moral support for their tailback, Green.
"Sundance put up the Bat Signal, so our Hollywood guy came and brought us with him," Henderson says. "I don't think athletes know what goes on here, but the word is getting out, so I'm sure there'll be even more guys next year."
Hotel room towels will no longer be safe.
As Justin Timberlake tosses down chili courtesy of renowned chef Giada De Laurentiis at ESPN's "GameDay" viewing party hosted by Leinart, nearby, Clemens tells World Series of Poker champ Jamie Gold that he's "a big fan."
"I'm shaking, like, 'You gotta be kidding me,'" Gold says. "Clemens is my idol. This weekend has been a wild ride."
Meanwhile, Stallworth is rooting for the Saints in the NFC Championship Game, a team that abruptly traded him in August.
"A lot of those guys are my really good friends," says Stallworth, who does not include coach Sean Payton in that category. "He was talking some personal stuff about me to my teammates after I was traded, and I'm best friends with those guys, so of course they told me. I was disappointed he bad-mouthed me because I said nothing but good things about him after the trade."
Pundits argue that Teri Hatcher has a better chance of leading the Ravens
to the Super Bowl than Kyle Boller.
"I don't watch 'Housewives' but I think Teri's a very beautiful woman," says Boller, motioning to the gentleman sitting beside Hatcher. "That dude is one lucky guy."
He is, indeed. But Boller is an NFL quarterback -- even if he is a backup.
"Steve McNair is one of the truly great guys in the league, so if I have to play behind someone, I'm glad it's Steve. But I definitely want to play," Boller says. "There's not much you can do when they sign a guy for three years, so I'll bide my time. And I'll get the last laugh."
Also at the party was Jones, who has come to Sundance, in part, to plug another of his entrepreneurial efforts: Tyku, a pine-colored all-natural sake- and vodka-based liqueur. He happens to have a bottle on him.
"You can drink an entire bottle and not get a hangover," Jones says. "Try it." In order to report this story properly, a taste test is conducted. Yup, Tyku goes down smooth. If Boller was looking for ammo in his chivalric feud over Hatcher's heart, he can offer her something her Hollywood Companion can't: an upgrade in liquor, courtesy of a fellow athlete. At Sundance, it seems, connections are everything.
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at Sam.Alipour@gmail.com.