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There's No Guarantee of a Hollywood Ending

Only a handful of top winners at Sundance, which opens today, have found fame and fortune.

January 19, 2006|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

It's considered the Sundance Film Festival's ticket to stardom. But for any number of its past winners, nabbing the festival's Grand Jury Prize has been more like a kiss of death.

The Sundance Film Festival opens today, and over the next 10 days, thousands of studio executives, talent agents, film buyers and movie buffs will pack into nine Park City, Utah, movie theaters in search of the hottest new films and filmmakers. The festival will culminate in a Jan. 28 awards ceremony to honor the festival's best dramatic and nonfiction films.

For all the buildup, the Grand Jury Prize contenders might understandably wonder whether they would be better off going home empty-handed.

It took one winning director, Wendell B. Harris Jr., eight years to make another movie -- a film about UFOs that went almost completely unseen -- after his "Chameleon Street" collected Sundance's Grand Jury Prize in 1990. And Jennie Livingston, who took the Grand Jury Prize for the documentary "Paris Is Burning" in 1991, hasn't directed a feature-length film since.

The festival, celebrating its 25th year as a champion of independent cinema, has certainly helped launched the careers of several top directors (Steven Soderbergh, for one) and marked the debut of numerous hit films ("Napoleon Dynamite" and "The Blair Witch Project").

But over that time span, only a handful of Grand Jury Prize winners have parlayed their honors into fame and fortune: brothers Joel and Ethan Coen, who have collaborated on many critical hits, including "Fargo" and "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," and Bryan Singer, who directed "The Usual Suspects" and the first two "X-Men" movies and is wrapping up "Superman Returns," one of the most anticipated films of the summer.

Far more common among the alumni is the tale of director Jill Godmilow. After her "Waiting for the Moon" shared the Grand Jury Prize in 1987, she tried to turn several Raymond Carver short stories into a feature film. Unable to raise the last $500,000, Godmilow left filmmaking to become an academic.

"I think I wasn't cut out for that game," said Godmilow, who teaches at the University of Notre Dame. "It was very exciting to win. And my mother has a picture of [Sundance founder] Robert Redford hugging me. But I couldn't translate [the win] into a life of waiting around, developing projects. I like making films, but that's not making films."

In many ways, the track record of most winners represents the classic clash between artistic risk-takers and corporate Hollywood conservatism.

For all its acclaim, the Grand Jury Prize was not intended to reward filmmakers whose movies are likely to make millions of dollars, said Geoffrey Gilmore, the festival's director. Rather, the awards are designed to call attention to works with bold, creative ambition -- and the directors behind such indie movies are likely to find a rough road in an industry driven by the bottom line.

"The jurors are looking for films that are taking risks," Gilmore said. "It's not surprising that these films don't always do so well in the marketplace."

Last year's grand jury champion, Ira Sachs' "Forty Shades of Blue," grossed about $76,000 in domestic theaters. The previous year's winner, Shane Carruth's "Primer," fared a little better, taking in about $425,000.

Some jury-winning movies barely make it into theaters.

Henry Bean's "The Believer," awarded the top Sundance prize in 2001, debuted not in theaters but on the Showtime cable network. Singer's "Public Access," which took top honors in 1993, wasn't released at all. "American Splendor," which won the jury prize in 2003, was the last winning film to make a splash at the multiplex, grossing more than $6 million.

The commercial odds are even longer for documentaries that win the Sundance prize in the nonfiction category.

Every buyer balked at a theatrical release for Livingston's "Paris Is Burning," a documentary about drag queens. "After it won the Grand Jury Prize, nobody was interested still. It meant nothing," Livingston said. "I talked to many distribution types and was told it would never make any money."

Livingston distributed the film herself, and when it generated standing-room-only screenings in New York, Miramax decided to buy the film. "Paris Is Burning" turned into a documentary hit, grossing more than $3.7 million.

Sundance organizers said that kind of acceptance was welcome, but a financial windfall was not the festival's primary barometer of success. Just as the festival was not designed to recognize movies made with studio financing, its jury awards were not intended to celebrate overtly commercial productions, Gilmore said.

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