Reservoir Dogs. sex, lies, and videotape. El Mariachi. Clerks. Slacker. The Blair Witch Project. Blood Simple. Napoleon Dynamite. Memento. Yes, the Sundance Film Festival (which kicks off less than a week from today) is the Holy Grail for aspiring indie filmmakers, who can rattle off those titles (and more) as examples of the wildest-dream scenario: Make a movie on the cheap, take it to the ‘dance, ignite a fierce bidding war, sell it to a scrappy and ingenious distributor with deep pockets, watch as they unleash it on the world, do big box office, become the next Tarantino or Soderbergh.
But it doesn’t always work that way. The odds of actually getting your movie in to Sundance are borderline astronomical — this year, the festival received 3,812 feature-length entries, vying for 118 slots (they were also sent 6,467 shorts, adding up to a staggering 10,279 total entries). Those that make it aren’t guaranteed distribution — in fact, only a fraction ever see the light of a projector outside of Park City.
And then there are the films that clear those hurdles, pick up distribution, land in theaters, and… flop. Sometimes their boutique distributors can’t figure out how to market them to a non-festival audience; sometimes (particularly in the heydey of the ’90s indie boom) they’re simply overvalued by the acquisitions folks writing the checks. And sometimes they just don’t play at regular elevation.
Here are just a few of those would-be phenomenons that withered in the “real world.”
1992 was a great year for Sundance, which was slowly gaining a reputation as the premier showcase for American independent film; among that year’s entries were Reservoir Dogs, Allison Anders’s Gas Food Lodging, Greg Araki’s The Living End, Neil Jimenez and Michael Steinberg’s The Waterdance, and Tom Kalin’s Swoon. But that year’s Grand Jury Prize went to Alexandre Rockwell’s In The Soup, a “movie about a movie” starring Seymour Cassel, Jennifer Beals, and future Sundance perennial Steve Buscemi. In spite of the jury’s preference, it couldn’t match the critical and popular appeal of its contemporaries; it grossed a mere $250,000 in its theatrical release.