Sundance Recap: Everything You Need to Know

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  • Publish Date: February 1, 2010

The best of 2010

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The 26th Sundance Film Festival concluded its 10-day run on Saturday night with the announcement of this year's award winners. Topping all American narrative films in competition was Grand Jury Prize winner Winter's Bone, a bleak drama about a teenage girl who searches for her missing, meth-dealing father in the Ozarks. The jury awarded its top U.S. documentary prize to Restrepo, a look at one year in the life of a platoon of American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan.

Sundance attendees vote for another set of awards, and this year's top audience honors went to the romantic comedy happythankyoumoreplease, the directorial debut for "How I Met Your Mother" star Josh Radnor (who also wrote the film and appears in its ensemble cast). The audience award for top U.S. documentary went to Waiting for Superman, which aims to do for the American educational system what director Davis Guggenheim's earlier film An Inconvenient Truth did for global warming.

How did these award-winning films go over with audiences and critics, and which other films had Park City buzzing over the past two weeks? More on that in a moment, after a quick history lesson.

Charting the success of previous award winners

What does winning one of the festival's top awards actually mean for the future success of those films? Let's look at some recent Sundance winners, to see how they've performed once they reach theaters.

Grand Jury Prize (Dramatic) Winners
Year Film Metascore Domestic Gross (in millions)
2010 Winter's Bone ?? ??
2009 Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire 79 $45.2
2008 Frozen River 82 $2.5
2007 Sangre de Mi Sangre 56 $0.1 ($55k)
2006 Quinceañera 72 $1.7
2005 Forty Shades of Blue 74 $0.1 ($76k)
2004 Primer 68 $0.4
2003 American Splendor 90 $6.0
2002 Personal Velocity 70 $0.8
2001 The Believer 75 $0.4
2000 (tie) Girlfight 70 $1.6
  (tie) You Can Count on Me 85 $9.2

The Grand Jury Dramatic prize is awarded annually to the festival's top fiction film by a jury typically composed of filmmakers and actors. (This year's panel included actress Parker Posey and novelist Russell Banks.) As you can see above, the Grand Jury winners typically go on to receive strong reviews from critics when they are eventually released in theaters. Only one such winner (2007's Sangre de Mi Sangre) failed to receive positive reviews, and the winners from the past ten years achieved an average Metascore of 74.6.

Box office success is an entirely different story, however. Excluding last year's winner Precious, which is clearly an outlier in that its grosses far exceed those of the other films, Grand Jury Prize winners from the past decade averaged just $2.3 million at the box office. And half of the winners failed even to crack $1 million in grosses. So a stamp of approval from the Sundance jury appears to carry little weight with moviegoers.

Audience Award (Dramatic) Winners
Year Film Metascore Domestic Gross (in millions)
2010 happythankyoumoreplease ?? ??
2009 Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire 79 $45.2
2008 The Wackness 61 $2.1
2007 Grace Is Gone 65 $0.1 ($51k)
2006 Quinceañera 72 $1.7
2005 Hustle & Flow 68 $22.2
2004 Maria Full of Grace 87 $6.5
2003 The Station Agent 81 $5.7
2002 Real Women Have Curves 71 $5.9
2001 Hedwig and the Angry Inch 85 $3.1
2000 Two Family House 79 $1.0

Not surprisingly, Sundance audience members did a better job than jury members of picking movies that actual moviegoers wanted to see. Again excluding Precious (one of two films in the past decade to win top honors from both the jury and audiences), the past decade's Audience Award winning films averaged $5.4 million at the box office -- over twice the average of the Grand Jury Prize-winning titles. And of the audience picks, only the John Cusack drama Grace Is Gone was a major box office failure.

What's somewhat surprising is that audience members matched the juries in selecting movies that critics wanted to see. The average Metascore for the above audience-selected films is 74.8, a fraction of a point higher than the Grand Jury Prize average score.

Documentary Winners
Year Grand Jury Prize Metascore   Audience Award Metascore
2010 Restrepo ??   Waiting for Superman ??
2009 We Live in Public 69   The Cove 84
2008 Trouble the Water 83   Fuel (fka "Fields of Fuel") 50
2007 Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) 71   Hear and Now * XX
2006 God Grew Tired of Us 72   God Grew Tired of Us 72
2005 Why We Fight 68   Murderball 87
2004 DiG! 76   Born into Brothels 78
2003 Capturing the Friedmans 90   My Flesh and Blood 78
2002 Daughter from Danang 77   Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony 78
2001 Southern Comfort 78   Dogtown and Z-Boys 76
2000 Long Night's Journey Into Day 85   Dark Days 73

* The HBO documentary Hear and Now did not receive a theatrical release.

For documentary films, both the juries (average Metascore = 76.9) and audiences (75.1) did a good job of selecting films that would go on to receive strong reviews from critics.

How last year's Sundance films fared

Does Sundance buzz translate into good reviews, or strong box office performance? Below, let's look at the films that made the best and worst impressions on film experts at last year's festival, to see how those films were eventually received by critics and moviegoers.

Sundance 2009's Best-Received Narrative Films*
Rank Film Metascore Domestic Gross (in millions)
1 Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire 79 $45.2
2 Humpday 74 $0.4
2 Bronson 71 $0.1
4 In the Loop 83 $2.4
5 An Education 85 $8.7
6 Sin Nombre 77 $2.5
7 (500) Days of Summer 76 $32.4
8 You Won't Miss Me XX [no U.S. release]
8 Cold Souls 69 $0.9
10 The Girlfriend Experience 66 $0.7
10 The Maid 82 $0.5

* In this table as well and the one below, films are ranked based on IndieWIRE's survey of critics and bloggers attending the festival.

There are some recognizable names on the list above, starting with the two biggest box office successes, Precious and (500) Days of Summer -- but also including likely Oscar nominee An Education. While not every film drew raves from critics, all of the best-received Sundance movies did eventually go on to earn generally positive reviews or better.

However, while all but one of these buzz films were released theatrically during 2009, several failed to make any appreciable showing at the box office. For example, Humpday attracted quite a bit of attention at the festival thanks in no small part to its subject matter: two straight friends have sex with each other on camera on a dare. But that same subject matter may have kept audiences away from the R-rated comedy, which grossed just $400,000 during its theatrical run. Like Humpday, the artsy crime thriller Bronson was among the top three best-received films of the festival (according to industry website indieWIRE), but it, too, failed to translate that reception into domestic box office success, grossing a paltry $105,000 in U.S. theaters.

Sundance 2009's Worst-Received Films
Rank Film Metascore Domestic Gross (in millions)
1 The Informers 20 $0.3
2 Once More with Feeling XX [no U.S. release]
3 Brief Interviews with Hideous Men 44 $0.0 ($34k)
4 Manure XX [no U.S. release]
4 The Greatest XX [coming April 2010]
4 Paper Heart 54 $1.3

The films that failed to impress the experts at Sundance also performed poorly with film critics and audiences when they were eventually released -- if they managed to secure distribution at all. Of these films, Charlyne Yi's pseudo-documentary Paper Heart was the best performer, although it divided critics much the same way it divided Sundance audiences. The fact that The Greatest appears on this list doesn't bode well for its upcoming spring theatrical release; despite a strong cast (Susan Sarandon, Pierce Brosnan, Carey Mulligan), the tearjerker was mostly dismissed as too melodramatic.

Sundance as film market

Many films enter the festival without theatrical distribution, and the buzz generated at Sundance can trigger a bidding war among would-be distributors. What happened to the films picked up at last year's Sundance? Here's how they fared:

Films Acquired for Distribution During Sundance 2009
Film Metascore Purchase Price Domestic Gross
An Education 85 $3.0 $8.7
In the Loop 83 $1.0 $2.4
Tyson 83 unknown $0.9
Burma VJ 82 unknown $0.1 ($52k)
Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire 79 $5.5 $45.2
Humpday 74 $0.1 - $0.5 $0.4
Cold Souls 69 unknown $0.9
The September Issue 69 unknown $3.8
Moon 67 unknown $5.0
Rudo y Cursi 67 unknown $1.8
Black Dynamite 65 $2.0 $0.2
Art & Copy 62 unknown n/a
Dead Snow 61 unknown $0.0 ($47k)
Brothers at War 60 unknown $0.2
Adam 56 $1.5 $2.3
The Answer Man (fka "Arlen Faber") 44 unknown $0.0 ($27k)
Spread 43 $3.5 $0.3
Brooklyn's Finest XX $3.0 [coming March 2010]
The Winning Season XX $2.0 [not yet released]
Kimjongilia XX unknown [not yet released]
The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle XX unknown [not yet released]

Purchase price and domestic gross in millions. Purchase prices are approximate (based on a variety of news reports), and many distributors did not disclose the prices paid to acquire rights. Domestic gross figures are through January 30, 2010.

The totals: 21 films were picked up for U.S. distribution, and 17 have been released to date. The average Metascore for these films was just over 67, and only four of the films failed to receive mostly positive reviews from critics -- a fairly good success rate. The median domestic box office gross for the 17 released films was $900,000, which is certainly not a fairly good success rate.

You'll notice that we don't have purchase prices for many of the films, which is due to secrecy on the part of distributors. One reason so many companies withheld the details of their Sundance acquisitions stems from Focus Features' 2008 acquisition of the distribution rights to comedy Hamlet 2 54 for a whopping $10 million -- a decision that proved to be disastrous when the film ultimately grossed just under $5 million.

The film with the largest known purchase price in 2009 -- Precious -- also proved to be the highest-grossing of last year's Sundance films, and others, like An Education, seem to have been successful pick-ups. But there were a few poor acquisitions last year as well, including the Ashton Kutcher comedy Spread (which earned back just $250,000 of its $3.5 million purchase price) and the blaxploitation goof Black Dynamite (which grossed about $243,000 against its $2 million purchase price). If there's a lesson here, it's that Sundance acquisitions are a crap shoot -- and that comedies, perhaps, should be avoided.

Lionsgate, the distributor that acquired Precious in 2009, made another splash this year when it wrote a check for $3.2 million to secure North American rights to the well-received thriller Buried after a quick but intense bidding war. The most expensive film acquired this year was Lisa Cholodenko’s buzzy The Kids Are All Right, picked up by Focus Features for close to $5 million. In a market described as "energetic" by Variety, but lacking major bidding wars and high prices common in previous years, other reported acquisitions at the 2010 festival included Joel Schumacher’s Twelve (to Hannover House for $2 million), Michael Winterbottom's controversial drama The Killer Inside Me (to IFC Films for $1 - $1.5 million), the Ryan Gosling drama Blue Valentine (to The Weinstein Co. for just over $1 million), the tragicomedy Hesher (to Newmarket for about $1 million), and festival winner Winter's Bone (purchased by Roadside Attractions for under $1 million just prior to the award announcement).

How did critics and festival-goers react to these and the events other talked-about films? On the next page, we examine this year's biggest Sundance offerings in depth.

We're sorry, but comments are closed for this article.

Comments (2)

  • Marc Doyle  

    I had assumed that more films from Sundance achieved commercial success. Wow, was I wrong. There have been some great movies over the last few years, but they just didn't deliver in the domestic box office. I'd like to see similar statistics about Cannes.

  • John Barker  

    Nice summary of the festival. Sounds like a lot of good films to watch out for. Thanks!

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