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Sundance 2012 at the Box Office: Charting Last Year's Acquisitions

Photo of Peter Knegt By Peter Knegt | Indiewire January 17, 2013 at 12:33PM

Last year's Sundance Film Festival -- like the year before it -- saw a remarkable amount of deals go down that made clear the sales drought of the end of the last decade had come to an end.  Over 40 films were picked up for release, and most of them made their way to theaters in the past year. And while there certainly were some very notable hits in films like "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Arbitrage," "Searching For Sugar Man" and "Sleepwalk With Me," it wasn't a wholly impressive situation. READ MORE: Sundance 2013: The Complete Buyers Guide
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Richard Gere and Brit Marling in "Arbitrage"
Richard Gere and Brit Marling in "Arbitrage"

Last year's Sundance Film Festival -- like the year before it -- saw a remarkable amount of deals go down that made clear the sales drought of the end of the last decade had come to an end.  Over 40 films were picked up for release, and most of them made their way to theaters in the past year. And while there certainly were some very notable hits in films like "Beasts of the Southern Wild," "Arbitrage," "Searching For Sugar Man" and "Sleepwalk With Me," it wasn't a wholly impressive situation.

READ MORE: Sundance 2013: The Complete Buyers Guide

The 2012 crop has seen only three films gross over $6 million ("Beasts," "Abritrage" and "The Words" -- the latter of which is actually the highest grossing film picked up out of last year's fest despite the fact that few seem to remember it). That's on par with 2011's slate (which was deemed a disappointing crop, box office-wise

), but well below the six films to gross $6 million from 2010's lineup ("The Kids Are All Right," "Blue Valentine," "Get Low," "Winter's Bone," "Cyrus" and "Waiting For 'Superman'"). Worse, only 11 films even managed to gross $1 million, down from 16 from 2011's slate (which was, again, a letdown itself).

That said, there were no real disasters from last year's fest either. Mostly just films that didn't quite live up to expectations (and thankfully also a few that well exceeded them).

Here's a rundown of the 30 top-grossing films to be theatrically released from the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, which doesn't include largely unavailable VOD numbers that surely boosted the overall profit of many of them. It details our take on their level of success, from the big hits (we count 3) to the disappointments (we count 14).

1. The Words
Distrubutor: CBS Films
Theatrical Gross: $11.5 million
Verdict: Yep, this is the highest grossing acquisition title of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. Not "Beasts of the Southern Wild." Not "Arbitrage" or "Searching For Sugar Man." But "The Words" -- which stars Bradley Cooper as a struggling writer who discovers a lost manuscript, claims it as his own and becomes a literary sensation.  You might not even remember it from last year's fest, but it was actually the first seven-figure acquistion of Sundance 2012, with CBS Films winning a bidding war and releasing it this past September to the tune of $11.5 million. So why are we not sounding so impressed? Unlike every other film on this list, "The Words" got a massive wide release. On 2,801 screens, it grossed just $4.7 million over its first weekend and was completely out of theaters less than a month later. Disappointment.

Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Irons in "The Words"
Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Irons in "The Words"

2. Beasts of the Southern Wild
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Theatrical Gross: $11.3 million
Verdict: By all accounts the most impressive box office performer on this list. Despite no known actors, an experimental narrative and a summer release date opposite the biggest studio blockbusters, "Beasts" has grossed over $11 million and should add a bit more through a theatrical re-release pegged to its remarkable Oscar nomination count (four, including best picture and best director). It's already the second highest grossing Grand Jury Prize winner ever (after "Precious") and in the end, it will surely take the aforementioned crown from "The Words." Remember when everyone wondered how the hell Fox Searchlight was going to pull this off?  Big Hit!

3. Arbitrage
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Theatrical Gross: $7.9 million
Verdict: Roadside Attractions followed up one of last year's most successful Sundance acquistions, "Margin Call," with another Wall Street-themed narrative that surprised many by becoming a huge fall hit not just theatrically, but on VOD. In addition to its near $8 million theatrical gross, it made another $14 million on VOD.   Big Hit!

4. The Sessions (then known as "The Surrogate")
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Theatrical Gross: $5.7 million
Verdict: Though John Hawkes missed out on an Oscar nomination and the film didn't quite break out in the way Fox Searchlight likely wanted, its $5.7 million gross (and counting -- it should top out over $6 million), still makes it a Hit!

5. Safety Not Guaranteed
Distributor: FilmDistrict
Theatrical Gross: $4.1 million
Verdict: FilmDistrict found a summer sleeper in this Mark Duplass-Aubrey Plaza comedy, which was the highest grossing comedy to come out of the Sundance Film Festival. Hit!

6. Robot and Frank
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn
Theatrical Gross: $3.3 million
Verdict: Released in late summer, this buddy comedy about an ex-jewel thief (Frank Langella) and his robot butler turned into a nice little success story for Samuel Goldwyn, slowly chugging its way into becoming a Hit!

"Searching for Sugar Man"
Sony Pictures Classics "Searching for Sugar Man"

7. Searching For Sugar Man
Distributor: Sony Classics
Theatrical Gross: $3.1 million (and should add a few more $100K)
Verdict: The highest grossing documentary of the year, Sony Classics got a remarkable run out of the now Oscar-nominated "Sugar Man," which is still averaging over $1,000 per theater 25 weeks into its release.  Big Hit!

8. Celeste and Jesse Forever
Distributor: Sony Classics
Theatrical Gross: $3.1 million
Verdict: Sony Classics got almost identical numbers to "Searching For Sugar Man" out of Andy Samberg-Rashida Jones rom-com "Celeste and Jesse Forever," though expectations were definitely a bit bigger due to this one's mainstream appeal. Respectable.

9. The Queen of Versailles
Distributor: Magnolia
Theatrical Gross: $2.4 million
Verdict: Magnolia's highest grossing theatrical release of 2012, Lauren Greenfield's "The Queen of Versailles" was a documentary hit almost on almost the same level of "Searching For Sugar Man." Hit!

10. Sleepwalk With Me
Distributor: IFC Films
Theatrical Gross: $2.3 million
Verdict: After a stunning $68,801 gross from a single screen in its first weekend, IFC Films took Mike Birbiglia's "Sleepwalk With Me" to a gross over $2 million, the first film from Sundance's low-budget Next section to do so.  Hit!

For A Good Time, Call..
For A Good Time, Call..

11. For a Good Time, Call...
Distributor: Focus Features
Theatrical Gross: $1.3 million
Verdict: This raunchy indie comedy didn't quite break out. Respectable.

12. Chasing Ice
Distributor: Submarine
Gross: $940K
Verdict: Still in theaters (and with an Oscar nomination for best song to potentially give it some extra visibility), "Chasing Ice" should end up being the third Sundance documentary to hit $1 million. Hit!

13. The Imposter
Distributor: Indomina
Theatrical Gross: $900K
Verdict: While it wasn't the massive hit it was over in its native UK (it became part of the all time top ten non-music documentaries list at the UK box office after only 26 days), Bart Layton's "The Imposter" impressively is nearing $1 million in the US -- almost always a good showing for a documentary.  Hit!

14. 2 Days in New York
Distributor: Magnolia
Theatrical Gross: $633K
Verdict: It was a big VOD release, which should indeed be noted once again, but Julie Delpy's follow-up to "2 Days in Paris" grossed almost $4 million less than its predecessor -- "2 Days in Paris" -- theatrically. Disappointment.

Ai Weiwei Never Sorry
Ai Weiwei Never Sorry

15. Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Distributor: Sundance Selects
Theatrical Gross: $534K
Verdict: Alison Klayman's look at renowned Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei got a lot of attention that suggested it could have been a bigger breakout than this, but these numbers are definitely Respectable.

16. Shut Up and Play The Hits
Distributor: Oscilloscope
Theatrical Gross: $510K
Verdict: Considering the one night only strategy of the film's release (even if it did have a few extended engagements), "Shut Up and Play The Hits" found a very impressive final gross. Hit!

17. Bachelorette
Distributor: RADiUS-The Weinstein Company
Theatrical Gross: $448K
Verdict: It was a huge hit on iTunes (it was first pre-theatrical release to reach the top of their charts), which got some promising press for the RADiUS, the new VOD-focused division of The Weinstein Company. But then it came out in theaters, and there's no reason this wedding-themed comedy starring Kirsten Dunst, Lizzie Caplan, Isla Fisher and Rebel Wilson should have grossed under $1 million theatrically whether it was a huge hit on VOD or not. Disappointment.

18. Detropia
Distributor: Self-distributed
Theatrical Gross: $380K
Verdict: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady admirably went the self-distribution route with their "Detropia," and the result was -- for a documentary of its size and content -- most definitely Respectable.

19. Smashed
Distributor: Sony Classics
Theatrical Gross: $377K
Verdict: James Ponsoldt's "Smashed" got some awards buzz -- especially for Mary Elizabeth Winstead's performance -- and a distributor that knows a thing or two about awards campaigns in Sony Pictures Classics. But the film never ended up getting more than a Spirit nod, or making more than a measly $377,000. Disappointment.

20. Red Hook Summer
Distributor: Variance Films
Theatrical Gross: $339K
Verdict: Spike Lee's latest had trouble at the box office, but is said to have done much better on digital platforms. Either way, $339,000 for a Spike Lee film: Disappointment.

"Liberal Arts"
IFC Films "Liberal Arts"

21. Liberal Arts
Distributor: IFC Films
Theatrical Gross: $327K
Verdict: The presence of Josh Radnor and Elizabeth Olsen surely gave "Liberal Arts" a boost on VOD, but not in theaters, where its numbers were dismal. Disappointment.

22. Compliance
Distributor: Magnolia
Gross: $319K
Verdict: Ann Dowd came this close to an Oscar nomination for Craig Zobel's NEXT section film "Compliance," which clearly has loads of fans and received a lot of press when it was released in August. Maybe its VOD release reaped more substantial rewards, but there was definitely nothing to phone home about with its theatrical numbers. Disappointment.

23. Keep The Lights On
Distributor: Music Box Films
Theatrical Gross: $246K
Verdict: Ira Sachs' intensely acclaimed gay relationship drama never quite took off at the box office, which is unfortunately something of a trend with acclaimed queer content lately. Disappointment.

24. Middle of Nowhere
Distributor: AFFRM
Theatrical Gross: $237K
Verdict: Winner of the best director prize at the festival, Ava DuVernay's "Middle of Nowhere" went on to get Spirit Award and Gotham Award nominations and a place in the general awards season conversation. But not much box office, despite that. Disappointment.

25. The House I Live In
Distributor: Abramorama
Theatrical Gross: $186K
Verdict: Eugene Jarecki's Grand Jury Prize winning doc on the war on drugs was never exactly destined to take over the box office, but one would think that award's stamp of approval might push it a bit further than this. Disappointment.

Middle of Nowhere
Ava DuVernay's 'Middle of Nowhere'

26. The Other Dream Team
Distributor: Film Arcade
Theatrical Gross: $135K
Verdict: For an upstart distributor releasing a doc that really didn't get to much buzz out of the festival, this is probably borderline Respectable.

27. How To Survive a Plague
Distributor: Sundance Selects
Theatrical Gross: $132K
Verdict: From its Oscar nomination to its multiple critics awards to truly being one of the most talked about docs of the year, "How To Survive a Plague" had a lot of things going for it... But not box office. While perhaps its VOD grosses tell a different story, in this regard it is a Disappointment.

28. Hello I Must Be Going
Distributor: Oscilloscope
Theatrical Gross: $107K
Verdict: Despite good reviews -- particularly for lead actress Melanie Lynskey -- "Going" could barely say hello to $100,000. Disappointment.

29. V/H/S
Distributor: Magnolia
Theatrical Gross: $100K
Verdict: Clearly Magnolia saw more potential on VOD for this highly buzzed horror anthology, but one would think it could have pulled off more than $100,000 theatrically given the hype. Disappointment.

30. Escape Fire
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Theatrical Gross: $87K
Verdict: No one expects too many box office dollars for a documentary about healthcare (unless its directed by Michael Moore), but still... Disappointment.

This article is related to: Box Office, Sundance Film Festival