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A Brief History of Sundance Buzz and Where It Leads

By  · Published on January 23rd, 2017

Buzz doesn’t always translate to biggest success.

Sundance. The annual film festival where filmgoers have the opportunity to sample the new year’s films. A film can being its long trek of build-up and promotion from the event throughout the year or it can quickly be praised overwhelmingly, making expectations far too lofty to overcome. Although a film can be spectacular at Sundance, this might be an insular experience. Let’s call it altitude sickness or those who wish to proclaim a masterpiece at the earliest moment in time. Think of it as though a commentator is shouting “first” on a message board. There are certainly movies that exceed expectations from the snowy mountains of Utah. Some of Hollywood’s greatest filmmakers have had their films premier at the festival. The real challenge is finding the true gems amidst the hype. In recent years, being a Sundance sensation hasn’t necessarily meant much.

Careers have been made at Sundance. Since 1985 (the year the Sundance Institute officially took over the festival) filmmakers such as The Coen Brothers, Richard Linklater, Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, Damien Chazelle, Sofia Coppola, and Rian Johnson among many others have launched their careers through the festival. Films like Sex, Lies, & Videotape and Reservoir Dogs changed the rules for independent film. Recent films like Whiplash, Brooklyn, and Manchester by the Sea have taken their Sundance film festival praise and continued throughout their calendar year earning accolades far exceeding their world premiers.

It takes a special film to continue momentum throughout the year and succeed not only critically, but financially as well. There have been films hailed from the mountains that are worthwhile, that just never seemed to make any headway. Whether it was 2013’s Touchy Feely, 2015’s The D Train, or 2016’s The Intervention these were films that got modest buzz out of the festival that just never captured an audience. Those films certainly didn’t have the buzz and help of winning the festival though.

Sundance – Film School Rejects

Notably 2015’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and 2016’s Birth of a Nation wowed Sundance audiences, but failed miserably commercially and critically outside of the festival. Audiences just didn’t show up for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Fox Searchlight famously paid, a then record, $12 million for the film. Worldwide, the film ended up taking home $10 million. That’s an investment with no return. If Fox Searchlight was expecting another Fault in our Stars, the film never really came close. The most successful film out of 2015’s Sundance slate was Brooklyn, which was helped from awards momentum for the film and star Saorise Ronan.

Birth of a Nation was another story entirely, but another Fox Searchlight blunder nevertheless. The raves out of Sundance, included the words “[Birth of a Nation], which drew comparisons not only to 12 Years A Slave but also Schindler’s List, debuted in the U.S. Dramatic competition category, and has gotten reviews as good or better than anything that has played at the festival so far.” Fox Searchlight believed the film had all the necessary ingredients; monstrous raves, audience support, an actor turned director, and a film that would fight against the #OscarsSoWhite campaign that was fueling the media attention at that time. With the record setting buy of $17.5 million, Fox Searchlight was expecting Oscar attention and a box office near a similar film in 12 Years A Slave, which made over $100 million. Controversy pretty much destroyed Birth of a Nation and its Oscars dreams. Where the Oscars attention goes, so does the money as Manchester By The Sea has become the big winner in accolades and money from the 2016 festival.

It was thought that buyers would be more hesitant to hand out the big cash given what happened with Birth of a Nation, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Amazon has paid $12 million for rights to Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick and there’s likely to be another big buy in the pipeline. Dee Rees’ Mudbound just premiered and there is Oscars buzz around the title already. Variety says “insiders predict that Mudbound is likely to land a deal in the eight-figure range, following a heated bidding war.” So much for studios being hesitant to drop the big dollars following last year.

As with any film festival, the buzz can be deafening from those who have witnessed a film during its premier. What plays good for one audience won’t necessarily connect with others. If the past two Sundance winners prove anything, it is that the film that resonates the loudest isn’t always the best. It’s best to keep that in mind as the huge buys continue at the festival. Perhaps the film that will make the biggest impact is one critics and buyers won’t even expect.

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News Writer/Columnist for Film School Rejects. It’s the Pictures Co-host. Bylines Playboy, ZAM, Paste Magazine and more.