As we speak, journos and industry folk from around the world are donning their parkas and mittens, picking up their passes and getting ready for the ten-day slog of booze, flu and films-that-probably-have-Chris-Messina-in-them-somewhere * that is the Sundance Film Festival, which kicks off tonight. But not everyone is there for the swag bags and schmoozing; every major distributor will have eyes on the ground looking for the next big thing.
You can peruse the buyers' menu by having a look at our feature: 25 Most Anticipated Films Of The 2013 Sundance Film Festival. But we hope that those looking to make some acquisitions pay a little heed to history. After all, for every Sundance breakout, there's probably two that a distributor paid through the nose for, only to fail to ever find much of an audience. So, to mark the start of the festival, and refresh their memories (and yours), we've rounded up ten of the most memorable Sundance hits, and ten of the most ill-advised bombs that have seen the light of day over the past twenty-five years. Take a look below.
*Sadly, TV duties mean that Mr. Messina is actually nowhere to be found in the Sundance line up. As far as we know...
The film that helped to put Sundance, Steven Soderbergh and Miramax on the map, the filmmaker's debut, starring James Spader, Andie Macdowell, Peter Gallagher and Laura San Giacomo, had been the runaway hit of the 1989 festival, winning the Audience Award, but the distribution negotiations were difficult. RCA/Columbia had the video rights after part-financing the film, which made it less tempting for companies. But Miramax, then a fairly small outfit, took the plunge, offering $1 million, plus guaranteeing another $1 million in P&A. The gamble paid off, and Soderbergh's film went on to win the Palme d'Or, and took a spectacular $24 million on its theatrical release, making it one of the most successful independent films of all time (at least back then), and cementing Harvey & Bob Weinstein as major players in the process.
The festival continued to be good to Harvey & Bob over the next few years, especially in 1992, when "Reservoir Dogs" and "Like Water For Chocolate" were picked up from the festival, and proved to be moneymakers. In 1993, Miramax were bought by Disney, but even as they became part of the establishment (their self-produced "Fresh" premiered at Sundance in 1994), they were keen to show their independence, and did it by picking up an aesthetically unpleasant black-and-white indie by Kevin Smith, named "Clerks." Harvey paid only $225,000 for it (still ten times what it cost Smith), but it took $3 million on release, and many times that on home video.
Miramax were the major Sundance player in the early years, but "Shine" proved that they could be beaten at their own game. Scott Hicks' Australian drama was natural Weinstein fare, but the director had had a bad experience with the company when trying to raise money for the script. And so while Harvey and co. pursued the film aggressively, Fine Line beat them to it, paying $2 million (causing, according to Peter Biskind's "Down And Dirty Pictures," Harvey to have a major meltdown at a party). The film went on to earn seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (and winning the Best Actor trophy for lead Geoffrey Rush), and took a spectacular $35 million in the U.S.
Probably the single most financially successful film that ever came out of Sundance, "The Blair Witch Project" was an unheralded, unattractive horror that blew the roof off of Park City when it screened, thanks to some cunning is-it-real? marketing from the filmmakers. Relatively new players Artisan picked it up for $1 million and took $140 million in the U.S alone, making it one of the most profitable films of all time.
Unlike most of these films, "Memento" didn't spark a bidding war. The film had already screened for distributors almost a year earlier, all of whom had deemed it as not commercially viable. But thanks in part to the patronage of Steven Soderbergh, who adored the film, financiers Newmarket decided to distribute the film themselves, with Sundance the last stop on a festival tour that had begun at Venice the previous September. The risk paid off, with the film taking home $25 million at the U.S. box office, and launching Christopher Nolan's stellar career.
2004 saw Fox Searchlight strike gold with a pair of comedies. They teamed with Miramax (who took worldwide rights) on the directorial debut of "Scrubs" star Zach Braff, and made back $26 million on an investment many times smaller than that. And then Fox Searchlight went solo for offbeat comedy "Napoleon Dynamite," paying $3 million for the project, and making back $44 million for their trouble, with the film also proving a huge merchandising and home video phenomenon (even spawning a short-lived TV cartoon spin-off).
What Miramax were to Sundance in the 1990s, Fox Searchlight were to the festival in the 2000s, and they struck gold with "Little Miss Sunshine." It was always going to be an attractive buy, thanks to the presence of Steve Carell, who was becoming a major star thanks to "The Office" and the previous summer's "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," and a bidding war erupted. But it was Fox's spin-off studio that landed it, with a record-breaking $10.5 million bid (plus 10% of the gross). And for once, a big paycheck paid off, with the film making $60 million in the U.S., and $100 million worldwide, as well as taking a Best Picture Oscar nomination (and winning for Screenplay and Supporting Actor).
While it was on a smaller scale, Fox Searchlight managed a more impressive return on their investment the next year with "Once." The Irish musical, made for only $100,000 by director John Carney, was the crowd-pleasing hit of the festival in 2007, but initially rights were picked up by Summit Entertainment. A few weeks after the festival, though, Fox Searchlight managed to snag it, paying a little under $1 million for North American rights. The film went on to take nearly ten times as much, as well as spawning a huge Broadway adaptation of the film.
Most of the films on this side of the list have been crowd-pleasers to one degree or another, so it's all the more impressive that Lionsgate did so well with Lee Daniels' "Precious," given that the film includes domestic abuse, incest and rape among its many button-pushing issues. They had to really fight for it, too. The company announced in February 2009, a month after the premiere, that they'd acquired the film for $5.5 million, only for Harvey Weinstein to claim that he' d already struck a deal. By the time the two companies reached an accord in July 2010, the movie had gone on to take nearly $50 million at the domestic box office, as well as picking up six Oscar nominations, and winning two of the categories.