Sundance Stories of Yore: “Little Miss Sunshine”

Sundance Stories of Yore: "Little Miss Sunshine"

Each day this week, Christopher Campbell will take a look back at a “classic” film that played the Sundance Film Festival. Today’s installment: Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton’s Little Miss Sunshine (2006).

If you’ve ever wondered why there are so many big-budget films with all-star casts at Sundance in recent years, here’s why: the Little Miss Sunshine scenario. While this particular film is not the cause nor was it the first studio-like movie to arrive in Park City sans distribution, it is perhaps the most exemplary of a situation that’s currently very familiar at the festival. Sometimes a film can come out the worse for the scenario, as in the case of last year’s What Just Happened? But sometimes it can create a “Cinderella story,” as it did for Little Miss Sunshine.

Here’s the gist of it: in past years, Little Miss Sunshine would have easily been set up and produced at a studio, at least at a specialty division. But all the majors passed on it save for Focus Features, which ultimately dropped the project after two years of pre-production. So, producer Marc Turtletaub made the film independently through his companies Big Beach Films and Deep River Productions.

When Little Miss Sunshine premiered at Sundance, the film was an instant hit, receiving a standing ovation after its first screening. Suddenly all the distributors, most if not all of which had probably passed originally, wanted the movie. After an intense bidding war, Fox Searchlight nabbed the rights for an astonishing price tag of $10.5 million (plus 10% of the gross). The purchase price may have seemed like too much at the time, but it made a lot of sense in business terms. And not necessarily because Searchlight had the skills to turn a little dysfunctional family indie into a $100 million-grossing, multi-Oscar-nominated success.

In the current Hollywood economy (not to be confused with the current global economy, because the scenario came way before the financial crisis), it is actually smart for a studio to avoid producing a film for $8 million (the cost of LMS) only to later pay more than $10 million for the finished product. As one prominent indie producer told me, “specialty companies are better off going to Sundance and outright overpaying for a great film than pay less for a something that might be good.”

If you’ve read my list of Worst Sundance Sensations, you’ll know that I don’t exactly agree that Little Miss Sunshine is a great film. But enough people disagree with me to have made it a Best Picture nominee and an official Sundance Classic.

Anyway, I do love every moment featuring Supporting Actor Oscar-winner Alan Arkin, so below is a clip of one of his greatest, most foul-mouthed scenes, courtesy of Hulu.com. Hulu also has the whole film available for free, which you can view here.

Watch the trailer:

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