ComingSoon.net has arrived in Park City and we’re adjusting to the higher altitude, which is about 7,000 feet above sea level, though we’re also enjoying the fresher air than we’ve become used to while walking on the streets of New York City. Before our heads get too clouded up by seeing way too many movies or we’re completely exhausted from running around between venues, we thought we’d take one last look back at the festival in 2008.
Some might remember that last year, we kicked things off with our Sundance ’07 Scorecard, looking back at the movies that played at the 2007 festival and how they fared in terms of getting distribution and in their theatrical releases. It’s a somewhat depressing venture, granted, especially if you’re one of the studios who bought one of the movies that failed to find an audience in theaters. (It should be noted that one regular Sundance buyer, Warner Independent, folded last year, and Paramount Vantage seems ready to be taken over by its older studio brother.)
Of course, making independent films isn’t necessarily all about money–it’s about the art, it’s about entertaining and making audiences laugh or cry–but when you think about how many studio buyers attend the festival every year, hoping to find that diamond in the rough, one that can make enough money to help finance their own productions, it’s jarring how few movies even make their purchase price back (at least in theaters).
Not every movie can do as well as a Little Miss Sunshine or a Napoleon Dynamite or a Hustle & Flow, but hits like those create even bigger expectations, especially for filmmakers, producers and financiers – the latter who’ve spent millions making the movies and who’d probably like to get back that money or better yet, make a profit.
Last year’s Sundance Film Festival was overshadowed somewhat by the writers strike, which studios were freaking out about how it might affect their production schedules. Even so, an entire week of the festival went by before anyone started buying movies. As you can see below, a good percentage of the movies at the festival did get distribution and were released in the last 12 months, which is quite amazing. Unfortunately, this year’s festival is following in the wake of the country’s economic collapse and the current recession, which you’d think would make the film buyers a bit more wary and cautious about shelling out $5 to 8 million for even the biggest buzz movies at the festival. Hopefully, none of the ones who see the numbers below will pack up their bags and head back to the considerably warmer L.A., because let’s face it, if they don’t buy the movie and try to get it out to theaters, there’s less of a chance of any of those reading about them will ever get to see them.
In the past few years, Sony Pictures Classics, Paramount Vantage and Fox Searchlight have been the bigger Sundance buyers and none of them have had the kind of hit you’d expect for the kind of money they’re shelling out to purchase movies at the festival. (Sony Pictures Classics has already picked up Carlos Cuaron’s Rudo y Cursi and James Toback’s Tyson for an undisclosed amount.) First Look and Peace Arch might tie for the distributors who failed to make much of a mark with most of their Sundance purchases, having dumped the last few straight to DVD rather than spending money on prints and ads for a theatrical release.
Looking at last year, the three movies that played at the festival and made the most money already had distribution. None of them made as much money as Under the Same Moon, a movie brought to Sundance ’07 by Fox Searchlight, then a year later distributed by the Weinstein Company with very little marketing to great success among the Latino community. In fact, none of the big buzz movies for sale at last year’s festival and that were bought for millions of dollars performed particularly well at the box office. The movies that grossed the most money came into the festival already having distribution and were playing the festival mainly to build more buzz for their theatrical releases.
On the other hand, movies like Trouble the Water, Frozen River found a lot of critical acclaim after the festival, as did the festival opener In Bruges and The Visitor, the former just having won a Golden Globe for its star Colin Farrell, and the others having similar awards attention. In fact, the documentary Man on Wire has a very good chance to win the Oscar for Best Documentary after receiving a lot of critical awards late last year.
The festival has always been a great supporter of docs, but going by the numbers below, James Marsh’s acclaimed doc is the only one to make any sort of impact at the box office, being the only one to gross more than a million.
During the opening day press conference at the Egyptian, I asked Sundance founder Robert Redford and Sundance Film Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore about the growing wall between art and commerce. After all, for the past few years, the festival has been pushing the motto “Focus on Film” and yet, those who produce and finance the movies to get them made in the first place would probably like to get their money back eventually. For them, that’s often what Sundance is about.
Here’s what Gilmore had to say in response:
“It’s an interesting question because I always wonder what people really mean when they talk about ‘commerce’ and what people really mean when they talk about ‘art.’ In fact, given our 25 years of perspective, both of those have changed dramatically. This is the festival where several decades ago, documentaries would have been considered absolutely non-commercial, and that’s changed. This is a world in which low-budget films and small films would be considered absolutely non-commercial and that has changed. What Sundance has been about is expanding that sense of the possible and expanding that sense of the possible means changing the nature of what people even view as commercial. So we walk lines, but we haven’t changed our agenda and my colleagues who talk about these issues all the time are always debating ‘what is commercial?’ The most frustrating thing that happens at Sundance from year to year is that when someone tells you how wonderful a film is but how they don’t think it can be taken out into the market. What we want to make sure is that the wonderful films are at Sundance get taken out into that market.”
So below, you’ll see the total theatrical box office grossed by all the movies that played at Sundance that were released since this time last year. It’s a somewhat depressing and a scary picture for any film producer, financier or film buyer hoping to score it big with an independent film bought even for relatively little money.
The Sundance Class of 2008 (and a few from 2007):
* = Premiered at the 2008 Sundance without distribution
#La Misma Luna (Weinstein Co.) – $12.6 mil.
Be Kind Rewind (New Line) – $11.2 mil.
U2 3D – $9.7 mil.
Smart People (Miramax) – $9.5 mil.
*Man on Wire (Magnolia) – $2.9 mil.
George Romero’s Diary of the Dead (Weinstein Co.) – $958k
*Trouble the Water (Zeitgeist) – $489k
#Chicago 10 (Roadside Attractions) $177k
#The Pool (Vitagraph) – $95k
Towelhead (Warner Independent) – $37k
#Never Forever (Arts Alliance) – $14k
*The Guitar (Lightning Media) no box office reported
Picked Up but Unreleased
Birds of America (First Look – straight to DVD)
There’s only one movie that played at last year’s Sundance Film Festival with distribution that hasn’t been released and that was the Yari Group’s Assassination of a High School President. It was originally going to be released in August but then it was moved to late February 2009, but with the Yari group filing for Chapter 11 last month, who knows if that date will stick and whether the world will ever get a chance to see Brett Simon’s comedy. (We did a great interview with Brett and his two stars last year, which we still haven’t run.)
Still Unreleased with No U.S. Distributor:
Adventures in Power
That’s it for our grim recap. This year’s festival kicks off officially tonight with the