As we speak, journos and industry folk from around the world are donning their parkas and mittens, picking up their passes and getting ready for the ten-day slog of booze, flu and films-that-probably-have-Chris-Messina-in-them-somewhere * that is the Sundance Film Festival, which kicks off tonight. But not everyone is there for the swag bags and schmoozing; every major distributor will have eyes on the ground looking for the next big thing.
You can peruse the buyers’ menu by having a look at our feature: 25 Most Anticipated Films Of The 2013 Sundance Film Festival. But we hope that those looking to make some acquisitions pay a little heed to history. After all, for every Sundance breakout, there’s probably two that a distributor paid through the nose for, only to fail to ever find much of an audience. So, to mark the start of the festival, and refresh their memories (and yours), we’ve rounded up ten of the most memorable Sundance hits, and ten of the most ill-advised bombs that have seen the light of day over the past twenty-five years. Take a look below.
*Sadly, TV duties mean that Mr. Messina is actually nowhere to be found in the Sundance line up. As far as we know…
"sex, lies and videotape" (1989)
The film that helped to put Sundance, Steven Soderbergh and Miramax on the map, the filmmaker’s debut, starring James Spader, Andie Macdowell, Peter Gallagher and Laura San Giacomo, had been the runaway hit of the 1989 festival, winning the Audience Award, but the distribution negotiations were difficult. RCA/Columbia had the video rights after part-financing the film, which made it less tempting for companies. But Miramax, then a fairly small outfit, took the plunge, offering $1 million, plus guaranteeing another $1 million in P&A. The gamble paid off, and Soderbergh’s film went on to win the Palme d’Or, and took a spectacular $24 million on its theatrical release, making it one of the most successful independent films of all time (at least back then), and cementing Harvey & Bob Weinstein as major players in the process.
The festival continued to be good to Harvey & Bob over the next few years, especially in 1992, when "Reservoir Dogs" and "Like Water For Chocolate" were picked up from the festival, and proved to be moneymakers. In 1993, Miramax were bought by Disney, but even as they became part of the establishment (their self-produced "Fresh" premiered at Sundance in 1994), they were keen to show their independence, and did it by picking up an aesthetically unpleasant black-and-white indie by Kevin Smith, named "Clerks." Harvey paid only $225,000 for it (still ten times what it cost Smith), but it took $3 million on release, and many times that on home video.
Miramax were the major Sundance player in the early years, but "Shine" proved that they could be beaten at their own game. Scott Hicks‘ Australian drama was natural Weinstein fare, but the director had had a bad experience with the company when trying to raise money for the script. And so while Harvey and co. pursued the film aggressively, Fine Line beat them to it, paying $2 million (causing, according to Peter Biskind‘s "Down And Dirty Pictures," Harvey to have a major meltdown at a party). The film went on to earn seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (and winning the Best Actor trophy for lead Geoffrey Rush), and took a spectacular $35 million in the U.S.
"The Blair Witch Project" (1999)
Probably the single most financially successful film that ever came out of Sundance, "The Blair Witch Project" was an unheralded, unattractive horror that blew the roof off of Park City when it screened, thanks to some cunning is-it-real? marketing from the filmmakers. Relatively new players Artisan picked it up for $1 million and took $140 million in the U.S alone, making it one of the most profitable films of all time.
Unlike most of these films, "Memento" didn’t spark a bidding war. The film had already screened for distributors almost a year earlier, all of whom had deemed it as not commercially viable. But thanks in part to the patronage of Steven Soderbergh, who adored the film, financiers Newmarket decided to distribute the film themselves, with Sundance the last stop on a festival tour that had begun at Venice the previous September. The risk paid off, with the film taking home $25 million at the U.S. box office, and launching Christopher Nolan‘s stellar career.
"Garden State" / "Napoleon Dynamite" (2004)
2004 saw Fox Searchlight strike gold with a pair of comedies. They teamed with Miramax (who took worldwide rights) on the directorial debut of "Scrubs" star Zach Braff, and made back $26 million on an investment many times smaller than that. And then Fox Searchlight went solo for offbeat comedy "Napoleon Dynamite," paying $3 million for the project, and making back $44 million for their trouble, with the film also proving a huge merchandising and home video phenomenon (even spawning a short-lived TV cartoon spin-off).
"Little Miss Sunshine" (2006)
What Miramax were to Sundance in the 1990s, Fox Searchlight were to the festival in the 2000s, and they struck gold with "Little Miss Sunshine." It was always going to be an attractive buy, thanks to the presence of Steve Carell, who was becoming a major star thanks to "The Office" and the previous summer’s "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," and a bidding war erupted. But it was Fox’s spin-off studio that landed it, with a record-breaking $10.5 million bid (plus 10% of the gross). And for once, a big paycheck paid off, with the film making $60 million in the U.S., and $100 million worldwide, as well as taking a Best Picture Oscar nomination (and winning for Screenplay and Supporting Actor).
While it was on a smaller scale, Fox Searchlight managed a more impressive return on their investment the next year with "Once." The Irish musical, made for only $100,000 by director John Carney, was the crowd-pleasing hit of the festival in 2007, but initially rights were picked up by Summit Entertainment. A few weeks after the festival, though, Fox Searchlight managed to snag it, paying a little under $1 million for North American rights. The film went on to take nearly ten times as much, as well as spawning a huge Broadway adaptation of the film.
"Precious: Based On The Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire" (2009)
Most of the films on this side of the list have been crowd-pleasers to one degree or another, so it’s all the more impressive that Lionsgate did so well with Lee Daniels‘ "Precious," given that the film includes domestic abuse, incest and rape among its many button-pushing issues. They had to really fight for it, too. The company announced in February 2009, a month after the premiere, that they’d acquired the film for $5.5 million, only for Harvey Weinstein to claim that he’ d already struck a deal. By the time the two companies reached an accord in July 2010, the movie had gone on to take nearly $50 million at the domestic box office, as well as picking up six Oscar nominations, and winning two of the categories.
"In The Soup" (1992)
From the same Sundance class as "Reservoir Dogs" and "El Mariachi" (and winning the Grand Jury Prize that year, no less), this Steve Buscemi-starring flick about a struggling screenwriter, from director Alexandre Rockwell, was expected to go on to great things even before the Tarantino and Rodriguez films blew up. But it failed to ignite much interest, going to now-defunct small-fry Triton Films (best known for putting out "Apocalypse Now" doc "Hearts of Darkness") for a sum unrelated by history, and made a mere $250,000 at the box office. After collaborating with Tarantino and Rodriguez (and fellow Class of ’92 grad Allison Anders) on the omnibus "Four Rooms," Rockwell was barely heard from again.
"Next Stop Wonderland" (1998)
A decent little rom-com that marked the proper directorial debut of Brad Anderson, with Hope Davis and Philip Seymour Hoffman among the cast, "Next Stop Wonderland" became the hot sensation of the festival in 1998, with Harvey Weinstein picking up the film for Miramax for a hefty $6 million, declaring, "I want to be in the Brad Anderson business." But not for much longer: the pair fell out when Harvey Scissorhands made Anderson reshoot the ending (presumably not helped by a middling $4 million take for the film), and they’ve never worked together since. Anderson perhaps most notably made "The Machinist" since then, but he’s more recently split his time between TV work and questionable genre fare like the upcoming "The Call."
"Happy, Texas" (1999)
Three years after "The Spitfire Grill" (which was hardly a smash, but at least made its price tag back) set the record for Sundance purchases at $10 million, it was equaled by "Happy, Texas," a modest comedy about two escaped convicts (Steve Zahn and, for some reason, Jeremy Northam) posing as a gay couple. Locked in a bidding war with Fox Searchlight, Harvey ended up spending the full ten mil on the picture, only to see it die on release that October, the film taking under $2 million. It’s since become a byword for Park City hubris, and director Mark Illsley has had only one credit since.
With the failure of "Happy, Texas" still ringing in their ears, buyers were much more cautious the following year; the highest profile buy was "Girlfight," the boxing drama that introduced the world to its young star Michelle Rodriguez. Paramount, Fine Line and USA Films were all in the hunt, but it was Sony‘s Screen Gems that won out, hoping for a commercial crossover hit, paying $2.5 million for the privilege. Sadly, it didn’t come off. Karyn Kusama‘s film made only $1.5 million at the box office, and the director took her vengeance by subjecting audiences to "Aeon Flux" and "Jennifer’s Body."
"Introducing The Dwights" (2007)
A Sundance flop so obscure that you’ve barely heard of it, "Introducing The Dwights" was known as "Clubland" when it premiered at the festival, a charming, if unexceptional rom-com starring Brenda Blethyn and Emma Booth (then tipped as the next big thing). Warner Independent Pictures won the bidding war, paying a not-inconsiderable $4 million for the picture. But they botched the release, retitling it in the most generic way possible, and opening it on the July 4th weekend, opposite the first "Transformers." It made under $400,000 before it left screens, and a year later, WIP ceased to exist.
"Grace Is Gone" (2007)
Harvey Weinstein‘s approach to the awards season can sometimes be summed up as "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" — anything with even the sniff of awards hopes is often pounced on by the mogul, only to be forgotten when hotter prospects emerge. One such picture was "Grace Is Gone," picked up from Sundance in the early years of Harvey’s new company. James Strouse‘s drama about a father (John Cusack, in one of his best performances) taking his children on a road trip in order to delay telling them about the death of their soldier mother was acquired by The Weinstein Company for around the $4 million mark, planning an awards push for the lead role. But even with a new score by Clint Eastwood, of all people, it never got any traction, and made a dreadful $50,000 in theaters.
"Son Of Rambow" (2007)
Arguably the best film on this section of the list, "Son Of Rambow," the impossibly charming coming-of-age tale that marked the second film from music video veteran Garth Jennings, who made his debut with studio picture "The Hitchiker’s Guide To The Galaxy," was the big buy at Sundance 2007, selling to Paramount Vantage for $7.5 million. But rights complications (owing to both the title and the use of clips from "First Blood") held up the release for over a year, and while the film was a hit in its native U.K. and elsewhere (taking $10 million worldwide), it made less than $2 million in the U.S after opening head to head with "Iron Man."
"Hamlet 2" (2008)
Ever since "Napoleon Dynamite," buyers had been on the lookout for the next big summer comedy sleeper, and it seemed to arrive in the shape of "Hamlet 2," a high-school set laffer from "The Craft" director Andrew Fleming, "South Park" writer Pam Brady, and starring the long-in-search-of-a-breakout-vehicle Steve Coogan. Focus were the ones who bit the bullet, stumping up a record-equaling $10 million after a bidding war, but the curse of that sum hit again, and the film only made $5 million back after a questionable August release date.
2008 was not a great year for the festival, with films like "Assassination Of A High School President," "Transsiberian," "What Just Happened," "The Escapist" and "The Great Buck Howard" all under-performing when they finally made it to screens. So on reflection, given the lack of competition, it’s perhaps more understandable why Fox Searchlight paid $5 million for Clark Gregg‘s "Choke," a not-especially-commercial Chuck Palahaniuk adaptation starring Sam Rockwell, Kelly Macdonald and Gillian Jacobs. While reasonably well-received, it never quite got a foothold with audiences, and made back only $3 million for the shingle.
"The Details" (2011)
We suppose we could see how this could be attractive — an offbeat, dark comedy with a starry cast including Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks, Laura Linney, Ray Liotta, Dennis Haysbert and Kerry Washington. And certainly Harvey was gung ho, with The Weinstein Company beating out Summit and paying a staggering $7.5 million plus making a P&A commitment upward of $10 million. Well, your guess is as good as ours as to where the money for marketing went, because it quickly became clear that Harv and co. cooled on Jacob Aaron Estes‘ film. Sitting on the shelf for well over a year, the movie was quietly dumped on VOD and given a cursory theatrical release last fall where it picked up a measly $63,000. But don’t worry about Estes, David Fincher is producing his next film.