Five winners & losers from Sundance 2011

2011 was a banner year for the Sundance Film Festival, introducing many awards-bait films into the fold, and one unique box office hit. There were, however, also some incredibly hyped films acquired at Sundance that, whether it be faulty marketing, a poor release strategy, or general disinterest, failed to connect with audiences. Here are the five winners (MARGIN CALL) and losers (LIKE CRAZY) among the films that were purchased at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. We’ve already seen one sale at Sundance 2012 (Sony Pictures Classics just picked up SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN), so it will be interesting to see if there were any lessons learned from this lot:


Acquired for a reported $100,000 by Roadside Attractions at the festival, the financial crisis thriller MARGIN CALL, boasting an ensemble cast including Kevin Spacey, Zachary Quinto, Paul Bettany, and Demi Moore, went on to gross about $10 million worldwide, and another $4 million in Video-On-Demand receipts. The film was unique in that it did not receive a traditional theatrical release, but was a “day-and-date” release—opening the film in limited theaters while making it available that same day on VOD. It opened to critical acclaim as well, and is arguably the most successful film of last year’s festival.

Acquired for just $1 million at the fest by Sony Pictures Classics, the Irish black comedy THE GUARD, starring Brendan Gleeson as a lovably sleazy Irish cop who partners with an American FBI agent, played by Don Cheadle, to take down an Irish drug smuggling ring, ended up grossing $5.34 million at the domestic box office, and over $17 million worldwide. In addition, Brendan Gleeson received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Musical/Comedy for his hilarious turn.

Probably the most unlikely hit from last year’s Sundance Film Festival, the documentary BUCK, about the life and times of renowned ‘horse whisperer’ Buck Brannaman, was acquired for just $700,000 by Sundance Selects at the festival, and ended up grossing a whopping $4.04 million in theaters—a rare feat for a documentary. It also made the shortlist of 15 films vying for the Best Documentary Oscar, unlike snubs SENNA and THE INTERRUPTERS.

Acquisitions—and awards—guru Harvey Weinstein purchased this comedy featuring Paul Rudd as a lovably naïve stoner with three sassy sisters, played by Zooey Deschanel, Emily Mortimer, and Elizabeth Banks, for a whopping $6 million, including a guaranteed $15 million print-and-advertising campaign spend. However, the film ended up grossing a respectable $24.8 million in North America, and should end up turning a profit in ancillary.

Few would have thought that this deliciously violent B-movie starring Rutger Hauer as a homeless vigilante killer who dispenses his own brand of shotgun justice on everyone from pedophile Santas to corrupt cops would be a hit. Magnolia acquired the film for under $500,000 just before Sundance started, yet it went on to gross over $700,000 theatrically, but then, another $1.9 million in Video-On-Demand receipts. Like MARGIN CALL, it stands as another example of a successful VOD release model.


This poignant, transatlantic love story about an American boy (Anton Yelchin) and a fetching English girl (Felicity Jones) struggling to make their long distance relationship work was the talk of the 2011 fest. Made for just $250,000 and shot on a Canon 5D, the largely improvised film, which took home the Grand Jury Prize, as well as a Best Actress prize for Jones, was acquired by Paramount for big bucks: $4 million as well as a $10 million print and advertising spend. It didn’t make 500 DAYS OF SUMMER money, however, and only grossed a little over $3 million at the domestic box office.

The jury is still out on how well this, one of the Weinstein Co.’s big acquisitions at last year’s festival, will pan out. This comedy about a family’s pest problem that then sets off a hilarious string of events—and boasts an ensemble cast including Tobey Maguire, Elizabeth Banks, and Laura Linney—was acquired for $7.5 million as well as a guaranteed $10 million advertising spend, but has yet to see the light of day. Not a good sign.

Remember when Brit Marling was being talked about as one of the “it girls” of the festival, and the next big thing in Hollywood? This low-budget sci-fi drama about two lost souls (Marling, William Mapother) connecting on a night when a duplicate planet is discovered was acquired by Fox Searchlight for $1 million and, despite plenty of hype for the Wall Streeter-cum-actress/screenwriter Marling, managed to gross only $1.32 million at the domestic box office.

Arguably the biggest bust of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, this teen comedy starring Freddie Highmore and Emma Roberts was panned by critics and, after being acquired by Fox Searchlight for a reported $4 million, scared up only $1.43 million at the domestic box office.

This boundary-breaking lesbian love story about to teenage girls in love in Iran was supposed to be an awards darling, and one of the most talked about foreign films of the year. It took home the Audience Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and was acquired for under $500,000 at the fest by Participant. Unfortunately, it opened to mixed reviews and just over $400,000 in North American box office receipts, and to make matters worse, its awards thunder was stolen by another, more gripping Iranian film, A SEPARATION.

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