Reservoir Dogs. sex, lies, and videotape. El Mariachi. Clerks. Slacker. The Blair Witch Project. Blood Simple. Napoleon Dynamite. Memento. Yes, the Sundance Film Festival (which kicks off less than a week from today) is the Holy Grail for aspiring indie filmmakers, who can rattle off those titles (and more) as examples of the wildest-dream scenario: Make a movie on the cheap, take it to the ‘dance, ignite a fierce bidding war, sell it to a scrappy and ingenious distributor with deep pockets, watch as they unleash it on the world, do big box office, become the next Tarantino or Soderbergh.
But it doesn’t always work that way. The odds of actually getting your movie in to Sundance are borderline astronomical — this year, the festival received 3,812 feature-length entries, vying for 118 slots (they were also sent 6,467 shorts, adding up to a staggering 10,279 total entries). Those that make it aren’t guaranteed distribution — in fact, only a fraction ever see the light of a projector outside of Park City.
And then there are the films that clear those hurdles, pick up distribution, land in theaters, and… flop. Sometimes their boutique distributors can’t figure out how to market them to a non-festival audience; sometimes (particularly in the heydey of the ’90s indie boom) they’re simply overvalued by the acquisitions folks writing the checks. And sometimes they just don’t play at regular elevation.
Here are just a few of those would-be phenomenons that withered in the “real world.”
1992 was a great year for Sundance, which was slowly gaining a reputation as the premier showcase for American independent film; among that year’s entries were Reservoir Dogs, Allison Anders’s Gas Food Lodging, Greg Araki’s The Living End, Neil Jimenez and Michael Steinberg’s The Waterdance, and Tom Kalin’s Swoon. But that year’s Grand Jury Prize went to Alexandre Rockwell’s In The Soup, a “movie about a movie” starring Seymour Cassel, Jennifer Beals, and future Sundance perennial Steve Buscemi. In spite of the jury’s preference, it couldn’t match the critical and popular appeal of its contemporaries; it grossed a mere $250,000 in its theatrical release.
This 1996 Audience Award winner wasn’t exactly the kind of edgy fare that Sundance was (by then) known for; this tale of good-hearted folks overcoming nasty rumors in a small mountain town would be more at home these days on the Sundance Channel. So spit-takes erupted all over Hollywood when Castle Rock Entertainment shelled out an astonishing $10 million dollars to distribute the picture. When it opened the following fall, critics were less taken with the film, and the $12 million box office take, though respectable, wasn’t nearly enough to cover that big Sundance payday on top of distribution and advertising costs.
In the go-go ’90s, no one ruled the Sundance roost like Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein, whose fat checkbook and competitive nature made him a frequent buyer at the festival. Some of his purchases (like Clerks and sex, lies) became monster indie hits; others lingered for years on the fabled Miramax shelves. But Weinstein made a multi-million dollar mistake when he offered up $10 million for Mark Illsley’s Happy Texas, a rather formulaic escaped-cons comedy. Though Miramax managed to outbid Fox Searchlight, Paramount Classics, and New Line to acquire the film, those spurned suitors must’ve enjoyed a touch of schadenfreude when the comedy met with tepid notices and less than $2 million in receipts.
Slight, short (78 minutes), and derivative (it’s about this high school boy who likes older ladies! Here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson), Gary Winick’s 2002 comedy is an odd combination of recognizable faces (Sigourney Weaver, John Ritter, Bebe Neuwirth) and no-budget production values (it was shot on digital video but looks like it was shot on wax paper). Miramax was again the high bidder, shelling out $5 million in an apparent search for another Clerks; it grossed around $3 million. Winick went on to direct Bride Wars and Letters to Juliet, and if you can’t say something nice about someone, etc.
The Weinsteins strike again! Harvey and Bob had left Miramax Films in 2005 after years of struggle with Disney, their corporate overseers; they formed the Weinstein Company, and their first few years were (to put it mildly) bumpy. One of their biggest bumps was the $4 million acquisition of this John Cusack drama in 2007, which Harvey positioned as a year-end prestige release. Weinstein also declared that he would mount one of his famous, take-no-prisoners Oscar campaigns to get a Best Actor nomination for Cusack, starring as a father of two whose wife is killed in Iraq. But few even saw the film; released during a fall movie season in which multiple Iraq-themed dramas (including Rendition and Lions for Lambs) sank without a trace, the picture grossed an anemic $50,000, maxing out at seven screens.
Son of Rambow (from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe director Garth Jennings) was a charming little British comedy, but Paramount Vantage was certainly overestimating its money-earning potential when they shelled out $8 million for it in 2007. It only made back about $1.8 million; audiences may have gotten their fill of blockbusters-remade-on-cheap-home-video stories with the previous January’s Be Kind Rewind (which hit Sundance a year later but beat Son of Rambow into American theaters).
2008 was a big year for bad buys at the ‘dance (though the Weinstein Company, perhaps still smarting from Grace is Gone, wasn’t responsible for any of them). The biggest price tag was attached to Hamlet 2, which Focus Features ponied up $10 million for (there’s that figure again), only to watch it gross barely half that when it hit American theaters in late August (a less than ideal release date). Andrew Fleming’s musical/comedy is admittedly pretty funny, but audiences were apparently either scared off by the lack of big names or the fear that it really was a Shakespearean sequel. Henry Poole Is Here, director Mark Pellington’s seriocomic drama about a suicidal guy whose neighbors become convinced that a water stain on his house is an image of Christ (good luck selling that on a poster), was picked up by Overture Films for $3.5 million; it grossed about half that figure amid mixed reviews. And Choke, actor/director Clark Gregg’s adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of sexual compulsion and other addictive behaviors, went to Fox Searchlight for $5 million, but its peculiar mix of black comedy and pure despair only scared up about $3 million in receipts. (These days, it’s mostly notable as the movie where Community‘s lovely Gillian Jacobs gets all kindsa naked.)
In all fairness, even Sundance audiences and critics were less than enthusiastic about director Joel Schumacher’s portrait of privileged Manhattan youth behaving badly. But the film and video division of independent book publisher Hannover House wrote a $2 million check for the film, which features noted thesps Chace Crawford and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson; it opened in August to scorching reviews (it’s currently at 4% on the Tomatometer) and did about $200,000 in its two-week theatrical release. Ouch.
So that brings us up to speed, and ready for this year’s crop. In the meantime, what Sundance alums do you think failed to live up to their considerable hype?