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Conservative Utah group objects to state funding of Sundance festival, cites 'obscene' lineup

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SALT LAKE CITY - A conservative Utah group believes the Sundance Film Festival's lineup featuring 'obscene' movies is at odds with Utah's culture of family values, and wants the state to pull its financial backing.

The Sutherland Institute says the state shouldn't back a festival that features films about porn stars and women having affairs with one another's adult sons. He's referring to a pair of movies featuring well-known Hollywood actresses: "Lovelace" starring Amanda Seyfried, and "Two Mothers" starring Naomi Watts and Robin Wright. "Lovelace" is rated R. "Two Mothers" is not yet rated.

The festival kicks off Thursday in Park City, Utah.

The Salt Lake City-based institute isn't saying Sundance should leave Utah — but rather that the state should pull its financial backing, said Derek Monson, Sutherland Institute's director of public policy.

"There are a lot of people here that find that kind of thing objectionable," Monson said. "We are a family friendly state and we endeavour to be so because we value the benefits that strong families bring to society."

Utah state officials stand by the backing, saying the money is an investment in a festival that brings major economic impact and international exposure to the state.

Utah expects to spend $300,000 supporting the festival again this year, said Michael Sullivan, a spokesman for the Governor's Office of Economic Development. The money comes from the economic opportunity section of the state's incentive program. It's used to support and sponsor the event and take advantage of the marketing and branding opportunities for the state of Utah.

Last year, for instance, the lanyards given out to the stars featured the state's tourism slogan, "Utah: Life Elevated."

The festival is one of the state's largest annual money-makers. The University of Utah estimated that last year's festival brought $80.3 million in economic impact for the state.

"If we lost the film festival, we would be giving up $80 million," Sullivan said.

Sundance officials declined an interview but said in a statement that they are committed to showing films that are well crafted and thoughtful. "Audiences should find the films that are right for them," the festival said.

The Sutherland Institute's concerns shine a light on the contrast between Utah's ultra-conservative culture and the Sundance Film Festival's reputation of being an avant-garde, boundary-pushing film festival. What many view as artistic is viewed as extreme by some in Utah.

"What would you call a film festival airing movies that explore the lives of porn stars, adulterous relationships between mothers and their friends' children, and teenagers competing to lose their virginity?" Monson wrote in a blog post that brought the institute's concerns to the forefront. "Many Utahns' values would lead them to call this 'obscenity' or 'pornography,' but to the state of Utah, evidently it is simply 'economic activity.'"

Sullivan acknowledges that not all films are suited for wide audiences, but points out that viewers are not forced to view R-rated films and have ample opportunity to choose which films they buy tickets to see.

The Sutherland Institute, a public policy think-tank that advocates for conservative values, says Sundance doesn't need the financial assistance and that the taxpayer funds could be better used for other programs.

"If Sundance wants to put it in the private film festival, fine. But it's government-endorsed," Monson said. "But now you're asking for taxpayers to help pay for those kind of movies to be shown. That doesn't reflect the values of state of Utah."

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