Sundance Class of 2003: Where Are They Now?
by Anthony Kaufman
[NOTE: The dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum and Showcase lineups for Sundance 2004 will be announced on Monday, December 1st at 5 p.m. ET.]
The lineup for the 2004 Sundance Film Festival is imminent, and like sharks drawn to blood, everyone -- from publicists to producers, agents to advertisers -- is ready to seize upon The Next Big Thing. But before you strap on your snow-boots and get ready for the feeding frenzy, it's time for a reality check. indieWIRE thought it was the perfect time to look back at some of the notable films of Sundance 2003 and see what's happened to them since January. Despite a strong year in 2003, with a competition lineup that included such high profile entries as "American Splendor," "Thirteen," "The Station Agent," "Pieces of April," and "The Cooler" (all acquired by specialized distributors during the festival), the success of the films outside of the Park City hype-bubble has been, as always, mixed.
First the good news: HBO's dramatic grand jury prize winner "American Splendor," the docu-animated-dramatic hybrid about Harvey Pekar, written and directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, is still hanging on in theaters, via Fine Line, with box offices grosses around $6 million. And with the right marketing push and a hoped-for miracle at the Academy Awards, "American Splendor" could keep on trucking through the new year.
Catherine Hardwicke's teens-gone-wild melodrama "Thirteen" has also performed well for distrib Fox Searchlight, which reportedly acquired the movie for $2 million. Released just a week after "American Splendor," "Thirteen" has made roughly $5 million and is also sure to be remembered come this winter's awards season.
Likewise, Tom McCarthy's "The Station Agent," purchased by Miramax for $1.5 million, is continuing a quiet, but solid run in theaters -- befitting the film's tone -- with receipts around $2.5 million and receiving tremendous critical support along the way. And all three films have effectively launched the directorial careers of Berman, Pulcini, Hardwicke, and McCarthy.
However, the biggest deal of Sundance 2003, United Artists' acquisition of Peter Hedges' directorial debut "Pieces of April" for a reported $3-4 million seems less wise, in retrospect. Not quite the breakout hit the asking price would have demanded, the film is still doing respectable arthouse business: after five weeks in release, it has made around $1.3 million.
Three of the most successful indie films of the year were launched out of Sundance's World Cinema program: Fox Searchlight held the U.S. premieres of Danny Boyle's zombie-horror flick "28 Days Later" and Gurinda Chadha's soccer romp "Bend it like Beckham," and Newmarket brought in the Maori cast and director (Niki Caro) of "Whale Rider" for its U.S. kick-off (and sailed away with an audience award).
A number of other specialized distributors also pushed moderately successful productions and prior acquisitions, from IDP's "Raising Victor Vargas" (which garnered $2 million) to Sony Classics' release of "Laurel Canyon," and Manhattan Pictures' "The Secret Lives of Dentists," which both went on to make around $3.6 million. Lions Gate also introduced its wide release star-studded heist picture "Confidence," which went on to make over $12 million. What exactly is an independent film, again?
Here's one: Andrew Jarecki's grand jury prize winning documentary "Capturing the Friedmans." Distributed by Magnolia Pictures in collaboration with HBO, "Friedmans" garnered more than $3 million in ticket sales, making it one of the best bang-for-your-buck indie releases of 2003 and one of the most lauded -- it's also in the running for an Oscar. In addition to "Friedmans," a number of Sundance 2003 selections contributed to the wave of strong documentary films in theaters (though fared far less buoyant at the box office): "Love and Diane," "Stevie," "Stoked," "The Same River Twice," "The Weather Underground," "Balseros" "Bus 174," and "My Flesh and Blood" (the latter four also short-listed for the Academy Awards.)
After leaving Sundance 2003 with less than stellar buzz, two films managed to play remarkably well, considering their cool welcome in Park City: Paramount Classics' release of the Polish brothers' mystifying "Northfolk" ($1.4 million) and Strand Releasing's roll out of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's inane "Party Monster" ($827,000 and climbing). IFC Film's good-natured "Camp" also divided critics, but brought in a comfortable $1.6 million upon its release.
Now what about the other roughly 100 films that unspooled in Park City last January? Some are still waiting in distributors' vaults: Lions Gate opened "The Cooler" this week; Castle Hill is distributing A. Dean Bell's "What Alice Found," a special jury prize winner for emotional truth, early next month; Magnolia will release the Bukowski doc "Born Into This" in February; Paramount Classics will distribute "The United States of Leland" next March; and Focus Features has no release date set yet for Thomas Vinterberg's visionary sci-fi mess "It's All About Love." Let's hope they don't let this wintry epic languish into the spring.
A number of other distributed films have faded in audience's memories, some more resonant ("All the Real Girls" and "The Shape of Things") than others ("Masked & Anonymous," "Levity," "City of Ghosts," "The Singing Detective"). The Sundance Film Series' own rescue efforts for some of their own -- "Dopamine" and "Die Mommie Die!" -- didn't do much theatrical business either, with the Series proving more useful as a means of increasing ancillary value down the line for the pictures on DVD and the Sundance Channel.
As always, there are some orphans, too. Only four films in the 16-picture Dramatic Competition are still stuck in distribution limbo: "Quattro Nozo," "The Technical Writer," "Rhythm of the Saints," and the Showtime financed "The Mudge Boy" (which should play on the cable station, if it hasn't already). That 75 percent acquisition ratio is on par with previous Sundance competitions, and proves just how essential the selection is to specialized distributors looking to fill their release slates.
There were also a number of notable World Cinema selections that never found a home in the United States: among them, the much-loved "Historias Minimas" from Argentina, Zhang Yuan's potent, exhausting "I Love You," Argentine auteur Adrian Caetano's thriller-drama hybrid "The Red Bear," Aisling Walsh's reformatory-school crowdpleaser "Song for a Raggy Boy," Jesper Jargil's Dogme 95 doc "The Purified," and lastly, my personal favorite from Sundance 2003, Nicolas Winding Refn's English-language mesmerizing thriller "Fear X," which stars John Turturro as a mall security guard obsessed with his wife's murder. "Fear X" better find a distributor soon, because the next round of Sundance -- with a whole new slew of would-be rivals -- is about to begin.
[NOTE: The dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum and Showcase lineups for Sundance 2004 will be announced on indieWIRE.com on Monday, December 1st at 5 p.m. ET.]