Sundance Film Festival

25 Biggest Sundance One-Hit Wonders, #6-10

Scotland, PA10. SCOTLAND, PA
Director: Billy Morrissette
World premiere: Sundance 2001

Long before “Hamlet 2″ mixed Shakespeare and suburban American quirkiness, there was “Scotland, PA,” a very loose retelling of “Macbeth” set amidst Pennsylvania’s fast food industry that generated copious positive press upon its arrival at Sundance. Thanks to a hip indie cast — including festival fav James LeGros, Maura Tierney (filmmaker Billy Morrissette’s wife), Amy Smart, Andy Dick and Christopher Walken — and an unlikely, incongruous conceit, the film was quickly pushed to the front of the wannabe-breakthrough pack, and was shortly thereafter snatched up by Lot 47. From there, however, “Scotland, PA” became a veritable case study in the way festival journalists, desperate to champion at least one of the myriad movies packed into their exceedingly overstuffed screening schedules, lose their collective marbles overselling a bland mediocrity. Undone not only by thoroughly unreasonable audience expectations but, more fundamentally, a general dearth of humor or cleverness, the film flopped to the tune of a paltry $384,098, in the process rudely halting actor-turned-director Morrissette’s nascent behind-the-camera career. –NS

urbania
9. URBANIA
Director: Jon Matthews
World premiere: Sundance 2000

Adapted from Daniel Reitz’s play “Urban Folk Tales” and starring Dan Futterman and Alan Cumming, this unsettling New York phantasmagoria of sexual bigotry, trauma and liberation from co-writer/director Jon Shear (a.k.a. “Heathers” actor Jon Matthews) was much lauded when it premiered in competition. Within weeks, a teeny company called Unapix was already offering a $100,000 advance, plus more than two times that in prints & advertising commitments. Then, two weeks before the theatrical premiere, Unapix confessed that they didn’t have the dough, and Lionsgate (then spelled as two words) stepped up with a similar deal, minus the advance. “Urbania” wound up a critical hit, due to LGBT fest buzz as well as stellar reviews from the New York Times and prominent alt-weeklies, but according to the Winter 2001 issue of Filmmaker Magazine, the film had only made back one-fifth of its negative cost some two years after production wrapped. In a 2000 L.A. Times interview, Shear said: “I have five scripts I want to do, and I’m primarily working on two of them… It’s in directing that I’ve found myself,” which would sound more inspiring had he yet made that second feature. –AH

hurricane streets
8. HURRICANE STREETS
Director: Morgan J. Freeman
World premiere: Sundance 1997

Few have had odder post-Sundance careers than Morgan J. Freeman, whose gritty depiction of teen life in his Audience Award-winning feature debut would not have suggested a future stint as a producer on “Laguna Beach,” the sun-soaked reality soap opera about pampered teens on MTV. (He also directed “American Psycho II,” but let’s not get into that.) Still, “Hurricane”‘s path to Sundance success in 1997 may have been stranger: though the film was a solid drama filled with up-and-comers like Brendan Sexton III and Adrian Grenier, selling it was a tough proposition, particularly when the film’s eventual buyer, MGM, tried to hold a private screening of the film in L.A. and when the lights went down, Dino De Laurentiis’ 1979 schlocky disaster pic “Hurricane” came up instead. In spite of the erroneous print delivery, MGM beat out Paramount with an $800,000 bid for the film. A little more than a year later, “Hurricane” was released to a feeble $375,634 gross, and Freeman fizzled with his sophomore effort, the comedy “Desert Blue.” Since “Hurricane” still hasn’t been released on DVD, the film’s most enduring legacy may be a song from the its soundtrack, Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy,” which, like the film, was a one-hit wonder. –SS

open water
7. OPEN WATER
Director: Chris Kentis
Regional premiere: Sundance 2004

“The Blair Witch Project”‘s out-of-left-field DIY success was so enormous that it was easy to foretell a coming onslaught of copycats. More surprising, though, was that one of them, Chris Kentis’ 2004 horror offering “Open Water,” duplicated its predecessors’ feat of becoming a Sundance word-of-mouth sensation. The story of a scuba-diving couple stranded in the shark-infested ocean, “Open Water” had the “BWP” trifecta: unknown cast and crew, bordering-on-invisible $130,000 budget and a digital video aesthetic (often from a camcorder first-person POV) that would soon become the reality TV norm. The result was raves at the fest — Salon’s Heather Havrilesky proclaimed that “The heart-stopping realism of… ‘Open Water’ has the most reserved crowds at Sundance gasping and cringing in horror” — and a lucrative deal with genre-specialist Lionsgate, which purchased the film for a cool $2.5 million. Once released to the moviegoing public at large, however, Kentis’ debut made only minor waves, and his career has yet to have a second act. Still, with a sturdy $30 million box office haul, the film was profitable enough, as well as attracted enough good will, to prompt the 2006 direct-to-video sequel “Open Water 2: Afloat.” –NS

may
6. MAY
Director: Lucky McKee
World premiere: Sundance 2002

The debut midnight screening of Lucky McKee’s “May” at the 2002 Sundance fest “had the audience screaming and clapping.” That’s according to Lionsgate’s co-president at the time, Sergei Yershov, after his company had acquired worldwide distribution rights for the indie horror film. Even more encouraging was a four-star Roger Ebert rave upon its release the following year, in which he compared it to both “Carrie” and Shakespeare. But late-night festival crowds are a poor barometer of moviegoers at large, and the offbeat slasher flick performed poorly at the box office, banking only $150,000 in limited release. Since that time, “May” has acquired a substantial cult following, and McKee has established himself as a horror festival favorite, but he’s yet to get another film in theaters (although he did contribute to Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series). His first Hollywood production, a supernatural girls school chiller entitled “The Woods” (2006), was released straight to DVD by Sony, and his most recent bid for the big-screen fizzled when he was replaced during the shooting of revenge tale “Red,” which screened at Sundance last year and was released a few months later by Magnolia. –R. Emmet Sweeney

Check out all of the 2009 Sundance coverage at IFC.com and SundanceChannel.com.

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