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by Peter Knegt
January 13, 2010 1:50 AM
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Box Office 2.0: Recapping The Competition Films of Sundance '09

Next week, the independent film industry will once again turn its attention over to Park City and the 113 feature films screening at the Sundance Film Festival. Deals will be made, big indie box office hopes will result, and another year of hits and misses will follow. But before we head into those often unpredictable waters, let's take a look back at how last year's crop ended up panning out.

Sixty-four films screened in competition last year. Of them, 26 ended up being released in theaters before 2009 ended (with a few coming in 2010), and of those seven ended up grossing $1 million or more. "Precious" (then named "Push") was obviously the grand box office champ of them all (although no one else had Oprah on their side), and is currently just a few $100,000 short of topping "Napoleon Dynamite" as the highest grossing Sundance competition film of the past decade. Sadly, quite a few didn't even crack the $100,000 mark.

Here's a rundown of all four of the competitions, and how their respective programs played out in theatrical release. Next week, this column will take on the non-competition lineup.

The U.S. Documentary Competition

The Films: Art & Copy, Boy Interrupted, The Cove, Crude, Dirt! The Movie, El General, Good Hair, The Horse Boy, The Reckoning, Reporter, The September Issue, Sergio, Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech, We Live in Public, When You're Strange, William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
The Award Winners: "We Live In Public" (Jury), "The Cove" (Audience)
The Big Deals: "Art & Copy" went to Arthouse Films in the only major deal during the fest, but soon after Roadside Attractions took what seemed like a mighty duo in "The Cove" (with Lionsgate) and "The September Issue," adding to their pre-fest deal to release "Good Hair." Arthouse Films also ended up adding "William Kunstler: Disturbing The Universe" to their slate, while First Run took "Crude" and Zeitgeist took "The Horse Boy." Ondi Timoner's "We Live In Public" ended up opting for the DIY route, raising money for the release and tapping Richard Abramowitz to execute the plan.
The Top Grossers: "Good Hair" ($4,149,065) and "The September Issue" ($3,818,032)
The Biggest Disappointment: "The Cove," which had by far the most hype coming out of the fest and grossed only $849,306.

Mo'Nique in a scene from Lee Daniels' "Precious." Image courtesy of Lionsgate


The U.S. Dramatic Competition

The Films: Adam, Amreeka, The Answer Man (aka Arlen Faber), Big Fan, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, Cold Souls, Dare, Don't Let Me Drown, The Greatest, Humpday, Paper Heart, Peter and Vandy, Precious, Sin Nombre, Taking Chance, Toe to Toe
The Award Winners: "Precious: Based on the novel 'Push' by Sapphire" (both Jury and Audience)
The Big Deals: "Sin Nombre" (Focus Features) was already secured pre-fest; "Adam" (Fox Searchlight) and "Humpday" (Magnolia) were both picked up during the fest; while "Precious"'s Lionsgate/Oprah/Tyler Perry/not the Weinsteins deal was by far the most discussed indie deal of the year, and occurred shortly afterwards. In the end, most of the competition ended up getting picked up, including "The Answer Man" (Magnolia), "Amreeka" (National Geographic), "Big Fan" (First Independent), "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men" (IFC Films), "Cold Souls" (Samuel Goldwyn), "Dare" (Image Entertainment), "Paper Heart" (Overture Films), "Peter and Vandy" (Strand), and as-yet-unreleased "The Greatest" (Paladin) and "Toe To Toe" (Strand).
The Top Grossers: "Precious" (by far, with $44,311,459 and counting), followed by "Sin Nombre" ($2,536,665) and "Adam" ($2,277,396).
The Biggest Disappointment: "Humpday," which was a huge favorite among fest-goers and ended up managing only $407,377.

The World Documenatry Competition

The Films: 211:Anna, Afghan Star, Big River Man, Burma VJ, The End of the Line, The Glass House, Kimjongilia, Let's Make Money, Nollywood Babylon, Old Partner, Prom Night in Mississippi, The Queen and I, Quest for Honor, Rough Aunties, Thriller in Manila, Tibet in Song
The Award Winners: "Rough Aunties" (Jury), "Afghan Star" (Audience)
The Big Deals: Unfortunately, very few. Havana Marking's "Afghan Star" (Zeitgeist Films), Anders Østergaard's "Burma VJ" (Oscilloscope Pictures), and John Maringouin's "Big River Man" (in an exclusive run at NYC's IFC Center) were the only three films to find theatrical releases in 2009.
The Top Grossers: "Afghan Star" ($102,115).
The Biggest Disappointment: Calling any of them a disappointment considering they were the only ones to be released just seems cruel.


The World Dramatic Competition

The Films: Before Tomorrow, Bronson, Carmo, Hit the Road, The Clone Returns Home, Dada's Dance, An Education, Lost Village, Five Minutes of Heaven, A French Gigolo, Heart of Time, Louise-Michel, from within, Lulu and Jim, The Maid, One Day in a Life , Unmade Beds, Victoria Day, Zion and His Brother
The Award Winners: "The Maid" (Jury), "An Education" (Audience)
The Big Deals: "An Education" was the big pick-up during the fest, with Sony Classics taking North American and multi-territory rights. Magnet took rights to "Bronson" a month after the fest, Elephant Eye had the rights to "The Maid" by April, while IFC Films eventually took "Five Minutes of Heaven."
The Top Grossers: By far "An Education" ($8,168,597 and counting), with "The Maid" a distant second ($505,181)
The Biggest Disappointment: While being released On Demand through IFC probably was an additional help, "Five Minutes of Heaven" grossed only $15,676 in theaters despite the presence of Liam Neeson.

"Box Office 2.0" is a weekly column by indieWIRE Associate Editor Peter Knegt. Check out the previous editions:

Box Office 2.0: Tracking The Awards Contenders
Box Office 2.0: The Biggest Stories of the 2009 Indie Box Office
Box Office 2.0: "Broken Embraces" and the Cannes '09 Crop
Box Office 2.0: What Happens To "Precious" Now?
Box Office 2.0: The Curious Case of "Orson Welles"
Box Office 2.0: Fall Winners and Losers
Box Office 2.0: Assessing 2009's Dox Office From "Capitalism" to "The Cove"
Box Office 2.0: Two Notable DIY Releases That Opened In "Precious"'s Shadow
Box Office 2.0: Snap Judgements & Great Expectations

2 Comments

  • sperling | January 14, 2010 6:21 AMReply

    Wow! What an amazing review of the box office revenue earned by some of last year's Sundance Film Festival entries. Truly impressive.

    This post makes me think that it would be interesting to take a look at all the Sundance competition films from previous years and (after adjusting for inflation) examine how they performed financially. I wonder if taking certain variables into account (stars, genres, budgets, festival awards, etc.) one could begin to forecast the box office receipts for a Sundance film with any degree of accuracy. Not that I'm suggesting you do all that research....

    Great work.

  • Syd | January 13, 2010 6:47 AMReply

    This is a good article on the hard facts from last year's Sundance. It will be so interesting to watch this year's trajectory with DIY creating new byways and highways for digital and other forms of exhibition. Theatrical has proven a lasting way to bring groups together and non-theatrical exhibition seems t be making a comeback as well. I would like to see the international performances as well and think IndieWire should link these films to IMDb so readers can go into greater depth when intereste. You do have a partnership with IMDbPro, so why not?