A major Washington area media company and a respected film institute will announce today that they hope to make Silver Spring synonymous with documentary movies by establishing there one of the nation's largest movie festivals showcasing nonfiction productions.

Organizers say they hope the annual event will do for documentaries and the Montgomery County urban district what the Sundance Film Festival has done for independent feature films and a once-sleepy Utah ski resort.

The festival is a collaborative venture by Bethesda-based Discovery Communications and the American Film Institute, both of which are moving into new offices in downtown Silver Spring. The hub would be the AFI-run Silver Theatre, now undergoing a $17.9 million renovation as part of a government-subsidized redevelopment effort.

As envisioned, the festival would run four days to a week, feature nonfiction films from Latin America to New Zealand and draw 20,000 people to the theater's three screens for movies, lectures and parties. The first festival is scheduled for the spring or summer of 2001.

"Something like this with the imprimatur of AFI that promotes documentaries is wonderful," said Ken Burns, the award-winning producer of films about the Civil War and baseball. "For too long, we've seen documentaries as something like broccoli or cauliflower--good for you but not good tasting. What we've seen recently is that they can be every bit as compelling as feature films."

AFI and Discovery officials plan to announce the event--potentially the first tourist draw for downtown Silver Spring--during a news conference this morning at MCI Center in the District, where Discovery has a store.

Montgomery County officials say the festival could give a swift push to their $321 million urban renewal effort in Silver Spring by giving a once-troubled business district an arty focus.

Filmmakers acknowledge that a festival devoted to documentaries--often serious, cerebral works--would likely never attain the international cachet of a feature film event. And much of this event's success will hinge on whether Silver Spring can emerge from its reputation as a can't-fix crossroads on the edge of Washington.

Yet documentary filmmakers are excited by the prospect of showing their work in the shadow of Discovery, National Geographic and the Public Broadcasting Service--all leading purchasers and broadcasters of documentary films. They say the festival should have staying power because of the companies behind it: Discovery, owner of several cable channels and one of the world's largest documentary producers; and AFI, a nonprofit that promotes and preserves films.

"You shouldn't underestimate the power of these two institutions," said Nina Seavey, an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker who lives in Takoma Park. "The combination of Discovery and AFI is a dream team because of the credibility they bring."

Only a few large festivals are currently devoted to documentaries. Two of the biggest in the United States are in North Carolina and Arkansas, where they receive relatively little notice, some filmmakers say. Amsterdam holds the leading documentary festival now on the international stage.

Organizers hope to change that with an event they have dubbed the AFI/Discovery Communications Global Documentary Festival. Today's announcement gives them about 18 months to select films from around the world. Each festival would feature as many as 50 movies.

"We are not competing with Sundance or Amsterdam, because ultimately we will be collaborating with them" to promote documentaries, said Steve Montal, AFI's director of educational and special program development at the Silver Theatre. "That said, we want to make sure that we will be able to premiere some important films."

Outside the big-money studio world of Hollywood, film festivals play an essential role in helping independent filmmakers get their projects noticed and sold for wider distribution. The most prestigious festivals are as selective about the films they show as an Ivy League admissions office. Prizes not only bring films attention but also help large distribution companies market them to a broader audience.

For Montgomery officials, the festival provides further evidence that Silver Spring is emerging from its economic twilight. Since its creation in 1981, the Sundance Film Festival has turned Park City, Utah, from a ski slope into a tourist destination of international acclaim. The festival also pumps an estimated $17.4 million into the state economy during its 10-day run each January.

The Silver Spring festival will coincide with the reopening of the 61-year-old Silver Theatre and Discovery Communications' move to new headquarters on 3.4 acres in the heart of Silver Spring. A 200-room hotel is scheduled to open nearby in the summer of 2001.

"When you think of film, you think of Cannes," said Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D). "We want documentaries to be associated with Silver Spring."