By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com January 17, 2013 at 1:30PM
From the same Sundance class as "Reservoir Dogs" and "El Mariachi" (and winning the Grand Jury Prize that year, no less), this Steve Buscemi-starring flick about a struggling screenwriter, from director Alexandre Rockwell, was expected to go on to great things even before the Tarantino and Rodriguez films blew up. But it failed to ignite much interest, going to now-defunct small-fry Triton Films (best known for putting out "Apocalypse Now" doc "Hearts of Darkness") for a sum unrelated by history, and made a mere $250,000 at the box office. After collaborating with Tarantino and Rodriguez (and fellow Class of '92 grad Allison Anders) on the omnibus "Four Rooms," Rockwell was barely heard from again.
A decent little rom-com that marked the proper directorial debut of Brad Anderson, with Hope Davis and Philip Seymour Hoffman among the cast, "Next Stop Wonderland" became the hot sensation of the festival in 1998, with Harvey Weinstein picking up the film for Miramax for a hefty $6 million, declaring, "I want to be in the Brad Anderson business." But not for much longer: the pair fell out when Harvey Scissorhands made Anderson reshoot the ending (presumably not helped by a middling $4 million take for the film), and they've never worked together since. Anderson perhaps most notably made "The Machinist" since then, but he's more recently split his time between TV work and questionable genre fare like the upcoming "The Call."
Three years after "The Spitfire Grill" (which was hardly a smash, but at least made its price tag back) set the record for Sundance purchases at $10 million, it was equaled by "Happy, Texas," a modest comedy about two escaped convicts (Steve Zahn and, for some reason, Jeremy Northam) posing as a gay couple. Locked in a bidding war with Fox Searchlight, Harvey ended up spending the full ten mil on the picture, only to see it die on release that October, the film taking under $2 million. It's since become a byword for Park City hubris, and director Mark Illsley has had only one credit since.
With the failure of "Happy, Texas" still ringing in their ears, buyers were much more cautious the following year; the highest profile buy was "Girlfight," the boxing drama that introduced the world to its young star Michelle Rodriguez. Paramount, Fine Line and USA Films were all in the hunt, but it was Sony's Screen Gems that won out, hoping for a commercial crossover hit, paying $2.5 million for the privilege. Sadly, it didn't come off. Karyn Kusama's film made only $1.5 million at the box office, and the director took her vengeance by subjecting audiences to "Aeon Flux" and "Jennifer's Body."
A Sundance flop so obscure that you've barely heard of it, "Introducing The Dwights" was known as "Clubland" when it premiered at the festival, a charming, if unexceptional rom-com starring Brenda Blethyn and Emma Booth (then tipped as the next big thing). Warner Independent Pictures won the bidding war, paying a not-inconsiderable $4 million for the picture. But they botched the release, retitling it in the most generic way possible, and opening it on the July 4th weekend, opposite the first "Transformers." It made under $400,000 before it left screens, and a year later, WIP ceased to exist.
Harvey Weinstein's approach to the awards season can sometimes be summed up as "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" -- anything with even the sniff of awards hopes is often pounced on by the mogul, only to be forgotten when hotter prospects emerge. One such picture was "Grace Is Gone," picked up from Sundance in the early years of Harvey's new company. James Strouse's drama about a father (John Cusack, in one of his best performances) taking his children on a road trip in order to delay telling them about the death of their soldier mother was acquired by The Weinstein Company for around the $4 million mark, planning an awards push for the lead role. But even with a new score by Clint Eastwood, of all people, it never got any traction, and made a dreadful $50,000 in theaters.
Arguably the best film on this section of the list, "Son Of Rambow," the impossibly charming coming-of-age tale that marked the second film from music video veteran Garth Jennings, who made his debut with studio picture "The Hitchiker's Guide To The Galaxy," was the big buy at Sundance 2007, selling to Paramount Vantage for $7.5 million. But rights complications (owing to both the title and the use of clips from "First Blood") held up the release for over a year, and while the film was a hit in its native U.K. and elsewhere (taking $10 million worldwide), it made less than $2 million in the U.S after opening head to head with "Iron Man."
Ever since "Napoleon Dynamite," buyers had been on the lookout for the next big summer comedy sleeper, and it seemed to arrive in the shape of "Hamlet 2," a high-school set laffer from "The Craft" director Andrew Fleming, "South Park" writer Pam Brady, and starring the long-in-search-of-a-breakout-vehicle Steve Coogan. Focus were the ones who bit the bullet, stumping up a record-equaling $10 million after a bidding war, but the curse of that sum hit again, and the film only made $5 million back after a questionable August release date.
2008 was not a great year for the festival, with films like "Assassination Of A High School President," "Transsiberian," "What Just Happened," "The Escapist" and "The Great Buck Howard" all under-performing when they finally made it to screens. So on reflection, given the lack of competition, it's perhaps more understandable why Fox Searchlight paid $5 million for Clark Gregg's "Choke," a not-especially-commercial Chuck Palahaniuk adaptation starring Sam Rockwell, Kelly Macdonald and Gillian Jacobs. While reasonably well-received, it never quite got a foothold with audiences, and made back only $3 million for the shingle.
We suppose we could see how this could be attractive -- an offbeat, dark comedy with a starry cast including Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks, Laura Linney, Ray Liotta, Dennis Haysbert and Kerry Washington. And certainly Harvey was gung ho, with The Weinstein Company beating out Summit and paying a staggering $7.5 million plus making a P&A commitment upward of $10 million. Well, your guess is as good as ours as to where the money for marketing went, because it quickly became clear that Harv and co. cooled on Jacob Aaron Estes' film. Sitting on the shelf for well over a year, the movie was quietly dumped on VOD and given a cursory theatrical release last fall where it picked up a measly $63,000. But don't worry about Estes, David Fincher is producing his next film.