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Sundance surprise: Plenty of worthy pictures, but will any of them be hits?

January 31, 2011

Another Sundance Film Festival has come and gone, and by most accounts it was a banner year with better movie and more sales than in recent editions. At Saturday night’s awards ceremony, where love story “Like Crazy” picked up the jury prize for best film drama and Iranian lesbian tale “Circumstance” was the audience pick for best drama, veteran critic Todd McCarthy echoed what many festivalgoers were saying almost from the start of the event. The Hollywood Reporter’s chief film critic said, “this is one of the best Sundances I’ve ever been to.”

But what’s next? Critics, audiences and box office will be the judges. “We have to see what happens,” Sundance founder Robert Redford told Reuters on Saturday ahead of the awards. “We can get very excited, but no one’s going to know until the year plays out.”

SundanceRedford said that this year some 40 titles found distributors at Sundance, up from only 14 last year. That means there will be a huge number of mostly low-budget, independently-made movies in theaters this year, and many of those films — depending on how heavily they are promoted and the marketing money behind them — will fail at box offices. One never can be sure how Sundance films will play.

Last year, one hot title picked up at Sundance was “Buried,” a claustrophobic thriller centered entirely on Ryan Reynolds’ character trapped underground in Iraq. How much did it gross for Lionsgate? Just over $1 million — which probably covered just a few weeks’ worth of legal bills against hostile suitor Carl Icahn. Then there was “The Kids Are All Right” with around $21 million (a hit in the indie film frame), and a couple of Oscar nominations. Also, “Winter’s Bone” with just over $6 million (pretty good sum) and some Oscar nods too. But that’s the range for a well-performing art house movie.

This year’s high-profile deals included Weinstein Co’s acquisition of Paul Rudd comedy “My Idiot Brother,” which showbiz website Deadline Hollywood reported was picked up for a minimum guarantee of $6 million to $7 million. Paramount Pictures fell in love with “Like Crazy” for a sum said to be around $4 million. Kevin Smith skewered the financial dynamics of a Sundance deal at his “RedRedford State” premiere and decided to take his movie on a promotional tour, starting March 5 at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and hitting major U.S. cities before ending on April 4 in Seattle. Smith says he’s going to self-distribute “Red State” on Oct. 19.

We’ll see what happens, as Redford says. One trend going for Smith and other indie filmmakers is the opening of new distribution channels on the Web. A second advantage is that after three tough years, there’s still money in the market. What will be the indie hit of 2011? What will be the next “Little Miss Sunshine,” “500 Days of Summer,” “Kids Are All Right?” Will it be the newly anointed Sundance winners “Like Crazy” and ”Circumstance”? Or the sort of unheralded, under-the-radar crowd-pleaser that keeps the pilgrims flocking to Sundance?

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