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Sundance crowds seek next ray of ‘Sunshine’

Fresh off one of the sunniest hits ever to come out of the nation’s top independent-cinema showcase, here’s the big question: Is there a “Little Miss Sunshine” lurking in this year’s Sundance Film Festival lineup?
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fresh off one of the sunniest hits ever to come out of the nation’s top independent-cinema showcase, here’s the big question: Is there a “Little Miss Sunshine” lurking in this year’s Sundance Film Festival lineup?

A year ago, “Little Miss Sunshine” blew audiences away and wound up one of the costliest Sundance acquisitions ever, with Fox Searchlight paying somewhere north of $10 million for the road-trip romp.

Sundance veterans sneered, figuring the movie might prove another “Happy, Texas,” which Miramax bought for $10 million on the strength of great Sundance buzz in 1999. The movie rolled over and died at the box office.

Then “Little Miss Sunshine,” a charmer featuring Greg Kinnear, Toni Collette and Steve Carell as members of a horridly messed-up family en route to their little girl’s beauty pageant, hauled in nearly $60 million at theaters, one of the most profitable Sundance buys ever.

The film caught on critically too, showing up on reviewers’ top-10 lists and becoming a serious candidate for a best-picture slot at Tuesday’s Academy Awards nominations.

“Little Miss Sunshine” was that Sundance rarity that maintained the personal, idiosyncratic sensibilities of independent cinema while also clicking with a broad audience. Other costly Sundance acquisitions such as “Girlfight” and “Tadpole” found adoring audiences at the festival but were ignored and quickly forgotten in the real world.

The festival overseen by Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute opened Thursday. Redford founded the Sundance Institute in 1981 as an artistic incubator for undiscovered film talent. The institute later took over a regional film festival, which became the organization’s marquee event as films such as Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and Kevin Smith’s “Clerks” came out of Sundance in the 1990s.

Since then, festival organizers have had to fend off gripes that Sundance has grown overly commercial as celebrities descended on the ski resort of Park City and film buyers raced to find the next indie hit.

The acquisitions frenzy is misplaced, as only a handful of notable successes have come out of Sundance, such as “In the Bedroom” — which pulled in $36 million at the box office and earned five Oscar nominations, best picture among them — and “Hustle & Flow,” which took in $22 million and brought Terrence Howard an Oscar nomination.

In 1999, the same year “Happy, Texas” tanked, another festival acquisition, “The Blair Witch Project,” rode a wave of fan buzz to become the top hit ever out of Sundance at $140 million.

In 2004, Sundance produced its broadest slate of commercial hits with “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Garden State,” “Open Water,” “The Motorcycle Diaries” and “Super Size Me.” Big awards contenders also came out of that year’s festival, with Catalina Sandino Moreno earning a best-actress Oscar nomination for “Maria Full of Grace” and “Born Into Brothels” winning the best-documentary Oscar.

The rare Sundance hits come from a lineup each year of about 120 films, most of which are never seen beyond the festival circuit.

Organizers call it a successful year if Sundance delivers a strong range of original stories and documentaries, with maybe a few finding a modest theatrical audience afterward. Hollywood types, though, brand Sundance a dud if it fails to deliver some breakout hits.

“If a film manages to scratch its way to a few million dollars, that’s a major success,” said Geoffrey Gilmore, Sundance festival director. “Then again, it’s not a success when you set it against films making tens of millions of dollars.

“But that’s not what the independent arena is set up to do. We’re here to showcase a lot of different kinds of work. That can’t be transformed into something it’s not. You can’t take something that’s creative, distinctive, unusual, that works against a whole lot of mainstream sensibilities, then ask, ‘Why doesn’t this play mainstream?’ It’s not what its intentions are.”

A handful of films up for sale at Sundance had buyers eager to catch them at their premieres, among them director James C. Strouse’s “Grace Is Gone,” starring John Cusack as a husband whose wife is killed in military service in Iraq; David Wain’s “The Ten,” featuring Winona Ryder, Jessica Alba and Paul Rudd in a collection of comedy shorts based on the Ten Commandments; and Deborah Kempmeier’s “Hounddog,” with Dakota Fanning as a child rape victim.

Overall, the films have a more sober tone than usual, and many Sundance veterans came in generally unexcited about the lineup and skeptical that there were any surprise hits to be had.

Then again, some critics last year pegged “Little Miss Sunshine” as just another film that played well for festival audiences but might not cut it outside the thin, high-altitude air of Park City.