Earlier this year, the 2017 Sundance Film Festival took over Park City, Utah, for a fortnight. The festival has run since 1978 and has grown to become the largest independent film festival in America.
Sundance feeds festivals around the world with independent cinema and distributors flock to the festival hoping to buy a film they can flip into award season contention or make a box office hit. In 2006, Little Miss Sunshine did both. After premiering, Fox Searchlight Pictures purchased it for $10 million. It would go on to earn an international box office gross of $100.5 million and be nominated for 4 Academy Awards, including best picture (it won 2).
Notable filmmakers who got their break at Sundance include: Kevin Smith, Robert Rodrigez, Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky and Jim Jarmusch. Steven Soderbergh reinvigorated interest in American independent cinema in the 1990s with Sex, Lies and Videotape, a film that would go on to win the Palme d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival. A few years later, in 1992, an unknown, first-time director named Quentin Tarantino would keep the good vibes for Sundance going after premiering his debut film Reservoir Dogs.
In 1999, Sundance debuted a film that became one of the highest grossing independent films of all time: The Blair Witch Project ($248 million worldwide box office from a budget of $60,000). Sundance is also a nursery for Hollywood with many filmmakers hired to direct blockbusters shortly after their films hit the screen.
Not every film that plays Sundance is a winner. Last year, Birth of a Nation set off a bidding war after its premiere, accelerated by hype inside the bubble of the festival around its Oscar chances, that resulted in Fox Searchlight Pictures buying the film for $17.5 million; the largest deal in the festival’s history. Controversy hit the film when it was revealed the director, Nate Parker, had alleged rape charges against him. While Parker was acquitted, the controversy surrounding the alleged rape in 1999 and Parker's initial responses to the controversy cast a shadow over the film. When it was released in the U.S. Birth of a Nation made only $16 million and was consequently dropped from releasing internationally, including here in Australia.
So while we wait for the next big things to come our way from this year's edition, here’s a list of the Sundance hits you can stream right now on SBS On Demand.
The rise of Jennifer Lawrence can be traced back to her breakout performance in Winter’s Bone that played Sundance in 2010. Co-writer and director, Debra Granik, went to the festival with low expectations because every sales agent she’d approached to assist at the festival turned them down. With little support, and no ‘stars’ to promote the film, Granik hoped it would connect with critics in attendance. Not only did it land critically, it became the talk of the festival that year and won the Grand Jury prize and Best Screenplay. Lawrence’s performances was praised and she was suddenly in contention for every major 20-something role on Hollywood. Come Oscar time in 2011 it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. Those agents must still be kicking themselves.
One of the essential documentaries of the 20th century that began life as a 30-minute short film that grew into two-and-a-half-hour film, shot over 5 years and edited down from 250 hours of footage. It was accepted into Sundance in 1994. The film follows William Gates and Arthur Agee, two black teenagers who are recruited by a scout from St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Illinois, a predominantly white high school with an outstanding basketball program. The word about Hoop Dreams got out fast because the producers got a copy to critics, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (both Chicago based), ahead of its Sundance premiere. Ebert and Siskel liked it so much they reviewed it on their popular movie review television show, At The Movies, the same week it played Sundance, so it was exposed to millions of American viewers. Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of Hoop Dreams, even Madonna called the producers asking for a copy. Surprisingly, not many wanted to distribute the film, they were interested in the remake rights to turn it into narrative feature. Spike Lee optioned the rights to executive produce a remake but it fell apart in development. Hoop Dreams won the Audience Award for Best Documentary and bagged plenty of critical adoration throughout 94’ but it was denied major Oscar attention (besides a Best Editing nomination), which led to an inquiry, led by Ebert, who discovered a majority of the Academy members in the documentary category didn’t watch the film. Hoop Dreams now sits in the U.S National Film Registry and is often cited as one of the greatest documentaries of all-time.
Safety Not Guaranteed
Can you turn a real newspaper classified ad into a movie? Safety Not Guaranteed says ‘yes’. The ad in question appeared in Backwoods Home Magazine in 1997 and read: Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. P.O. Box 91 Ocean View, WA 99393. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I have only done this once before.
Safety Not Guaranteed expands on the idea of someone looking for a time travel partner verses anything biographical by focusing on interns at a magazine searching for the person who posted the ad. It won the major screenwriting award at Sundance in 2012 and got the attention of Steven Spielberg who was looking for someone to direct the next film in the Jurassic Park franchise. Director Colin Trevorrow went from making Safety Not Guaranteed with a budget of $750,000, to making Jurassic World for $150 million. Jurassic World went on to gross over a billion dollars worldwide and is currently the fourth highest grossing film of all time. Trevorrow’s next film is The Book of Henry followed by a little film called Star Wars Episode 9. A pity Sundance doesn’t get a finder’s fee.
The Kids Are All Right
Another film that went from Sundance to Best Picture contender at the Oscars. It was made for $4 million and it was purchased for $5 million after an intense bidding war in Park City in 2010. It tells the story of a married lesbian couple (Julianne Moore and Annette Bening) living in the Los Angeles. Each has given birth to a child using the same sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo). The kids, now teenagers (Josh Hutcherson and Mia Wasikowska), want to meet their dad and the whole family comes together for the first time.
Cutie and the Boxer
A hidden gem that didn’t explode out of Sundance in 2013 or incite distributors to open their cheque books, but it had enough momentum to become critically acclaimed and nab a Best Documentary Oscar nomination. The film focuses on the chaotic 40-year marriage of the boxing painter, Ushio Shinohara, and his wife Noriko, living in New York City.
The life of Boy began at Sundance when writer and director, Taika Waititi, was accepted to the Sundance Writer’s Lab in 2005 where he begun to workshop his idea with other screenwriters. Waititi went away and made his first film Eagle Vs Shark and then continued to write Boy over a 3-year period. In 2010, Boy premiered at Sundance establishing Waititi as a filmmaker to watch. Boy is about an 11-year-old who lives in Waihau Bay, in the Bay of Plenty region of New Zealand, dealing with growing up. Boy went on to become the highest grossing New Zealand film at the local box office upon its release and it held the record for 5 years. Boy was beaten by another Waititi film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, for the top box earning spot in 2016.
Tired of hard-boiled detective stories that follow the same formula? If so, Brick is for you. The neo-noir mystery set within a high school had major buzz coming out of Sundance in 2005. Writer and director, Rian Johnson, wrote the draft for the script in 1997 after graduating from film school. He spent 7 years pitching the script to producers but no one was interested, and no one wanted to take a chance on a first-time director. Johnson enlisted friends and family to help him raise the budget to make the film that reached a target of $450,000. Brick was shot in 20 days with a cast that includes: Joseph Gordon Levitt, Lukas Haas and Richard Roundtree (Shaft!) Following the success of Brick, Johnson went on to direct The Brothers Bloom and Looper as well as Emmy Award winning episodes of the television series Breaking Bad. His next film is Star Wars Episode 8. Sundance really needs to implement a finder’s fee.
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