The Sundance Film Festival kicks off tomorrow, with indie film blogs and glossy TV entertainment new shows alike converging in Park City to spotlight this year’s crop of would-be Tarantinos. The narrative, of course, is that you make your independent film, get into Sundance, and wow the potential distributors, prompting a fierce bidding war, theatrical release, and rock-star treatment now and forevermore. (Though, as we discussed last week, the translation of Sundance buzz to box-office dollars isn’t always as easy as it looks).
But what of the thousands — literally, thousands, every year — of filmmakers who don’t make that brutal Sundance cut? For the filmmaker, that Sundance rejection letter can feel like nothing less than a death certificate for their labor of love. And while a spin at the ‘dance can certainly help an unknown film’s chances of breakout success (see Reservoir Dogs, The Blair Witch Project, El Mariachi, sex, lies, and videotape, and many more), there are plenty of Sundance rejects who found success anyway. Here’s just a few of them.
Few films in the bumper crop of 1990s indies have (on the surface) as prototypical a back story as Doug Liman’s Swingers, which was a minor hit in its 1996 theatrical release, but a cult smash on home video. Jon Favreau wrote the script as a showcase for himself and his actor friends (including Vince Vaughn, Ron Livingston, and Heather Graham), shot it for peanuts, sold it to Miramax, and watched their careers explode. But they hit an early bump: Sundance turned the picture down. (The filmmakers reportedly made the mistake of submitting a not-quite-complete cut to the Sundance folks.) Undeterred, the film’s producers rented out a theater in Los Angeles a few weeks after Sundance, invited distributors to a one-time only screening, and sold the picture to Miramax for $5 million. (Sundance didn’t make the same mistake again: Liman’s follow-up, Go, premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.)
David Gordon Green’s debut feature was exactly the kind of low-key, no-star, lyrical drama that Sundance used to love, back in the late ’80s when they were operating under their original name, the Utah/US Film Festival. But the festival was a whole different ballgame by the time Green submitted George Washington for the 2000 festival. Luckily, his film made the cut at the Toronto Film Festival, the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, and the Chicago International Film Festival; Roger Ebert, Time Magazine, and the New York Times‘ Elvis Mitchell selected it as one of the year’s ten best films. Green went on to direct several similarly striking indies (like All the Real Girls and Snow Angels) before going mainstream with comedies like Pineapple Express and the forthcoming Your Highness.
We’re gonna tread lightly here, because hew boy, do we not wanna open this can of worms. Loose Change, a documentary examination of the events of September 11th, 2001, was first released as a streaming Internet feature in 2005. Writer/director Dylan Avery treated the film as a kind of work-in-progress, revising and recutting the film several times over the years that followed, with a “second edition” later that year, a “recut” version in 2006, a “final cut” in 2007, and a DVD release titled Loose Change 9/11: An American Coup in 2009. In its various iterations, the film has been (to say the least) controversial, serving as a rallying cry and centerpiece of conspiracy theories for “9/11 truth” advocates, while critics from the U.S. Department of State to the BBC to the editors of Popular Mechanics have stepped forward to debunk claims in the film. According to Avery himself (on the “Loose Change Forum”), the “final cut” version was submitted for Sundance 2007. “We didnt make it into sundance,” Avery reported. “(B)ut we’re working hard on the final cut, regardless.” Critics of the film may assume that Sundance passed due to the film’s questionable scholarship and stretching of fair use copyright laws. Supporters surely surmised that the film was kept out by a mass conspiracy to suppress the truth. (See you in the comments!)
Trey Parker directed this oddball black comedy/musical in 1993 while attending the University of Colorado at Boulder. He submitted the film for the 1994 Sundance Film Festival, but it didn’t get in; according to producer Jason McHugh, they didn’t even get a rejection letter. They decided to go anyway. The filmmakers rented a conference room and a video projector at a local hotel and papered the town with flyers. They ended up selling the film to Troma, who put it out on VHS and later on DVD; when Parker and the film’s co-star Matt Stone broke big with South Park, it became one of Troma’s most profitable titles and a genuine cult phenomenon.
British documentarian and provocateur Nick Broomfield’s probing, witty exposé of the suspicious characters surrounding the suicide of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain was a magnet for trouble, most of it generated by Cobain’s widow Courtney Love, who was (to put it mildly) unhappy with the film’s portrayal of her (and its investigations of theories that she might have had Cobain murdered). Kurt and Courtney was actually scheduled to play at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, but Love threatened to sue the powers-that-be at the fest if they ran it, citing copyright concerns (the original cut included Nirvana and Hole songs). Broomfield ended up showing it at rival festival Slamdunk; it went on to limited but successful theatrical screenings. In all fairness, Sundance wasn’t the only festival afraid to incur the wrath of Courtney; Slamdance passed on it as well. Wait a minute, Slam who?
A year after Parker said to hell with Sundance and screened his film in Park City anyway, four other Sundance-rejected entrepreneurs started up the rival Slamdance Film Festival, which ran simultaneously as Sundance and quickly established a reputation as a scrappier, less-hyped film fest (and frequent go-to festival for films that Sundance passed over). Among their first big gets was The Daytrippers, a wryly comic drama directed by Greg Mottola and produced by Steven Soderbergh, whose sex, lies, and videotape helped put Sundance on the map. But Soderbergh was in a slump by the mid-90s, and his heft couldn’t help get The Daytrippers into his alma mater. They ended up taking the picture “across the street” to Slamdance, where it won the Grand Jury Prize; it ended up going to Cannes, playing five months in New York, and grossing over $2 million. Soderbergh, of course, came out of his slump with Out of Sight and became one of our most prolific and innovative filmmakers. Mottola directed several episodes of Arrested Development and Undeclared before helming Superbad, Adventureland, and the forthcoming Paul.
Marilyn Argrelo’s documentary on the New York public school system’s ballroom dancing program got the thumbs-down from the Sundance folks in 2004; it ended up playing Slamdance, where Paramount Classics and Nickelodeon Films picked it up for domestic distribution. Released as a summer sleeper in 2005, it quietly grossed over $8 million, placing it in the top 15 highest-grossing documentaries of all time.
Even Slamdance initially passed on this dark, low-budget British noir, but they gave it a second look when the filmmakers resubmitted it the following year and ran it in the 1999 festival. It was picked up for domestic distribution by Zeitgeist Films, and the dismal $48,000 gross might have made Following a forgotten castoff if director Christopher Nolan hadn’t followed it up with Memento. Sundance wisely grabbed Memento, which exploded out of the 2001 Sundance fest, and Nolan (of course) went on to direct Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight, and Inception.
January, 2007. Sundance screens the documentary Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade, a look at 1980s video game culture. Meanwhile, Slamdance runs The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Seth Gordon’s jazzy, entertaining, hysterically funny documentary account of two men and their epic struggle for the all-time Donkey Kong high score. Chasing Ghosts may have had the more prestigious pedigree (and the preference of some critics), but King of Kong scored the distribution deal and became a quiet summer hit in arthouses and on DVD.
The Blair Witch Project was one of the most financially successful of all Sundance alums, but the festival passed on Oren Peli’s Blair Witch-esque low-budget thriller Paranormal Activity, which wound up playing Slamdance in January 2008. DreamWorks ended up buying the film — initially not for release, but to remake with a bigger budget. However, test scores were through the roof, and the company (through Paramount Vantage) ended up revising the ending and releasing the film near Halloween 2009, accompanied by a carefully-cultivated Internet buzz campaign. It worked; the $15,000 film grossed an astonishing $193 million worldwide, a figure nearly matched by its sequel (rushed out a mere year later).
So what do you think? Which of these movies would Sundance have been wise to hang on to?