Photo: Sam Mircovitch-Reuters
Since the Sundance Film Festival was founded by Robert Redford in 1981, as a beacon for independent and aspiring filmmakers to explore their creativity without the confines and budget pressures of the big studios, it has produced memorable films that have launched the careers of previously unknown directors. But is Sundance really a synonym of indie success, and is it profitable for filmmakers to invest time and money to be a part of the festival’s lineup?
The buzz starts as early as August, as every year hopeful Indie filmmakers begin their long awaited journey to Sundance, much like Dorothy being catapulted into the Land of Oz. Park City is truly the place to be between January 22nd and February 1st if one is in the film business, and this is particularly true for the known label of “indie” feature film and documentary directors, as well as a handful of carefully selected foreign films. All these creative minds share one coveted goal: to avoid the intricate politics of the Hollywood machine, by selling their films to distributors who recognize the significance of independent and foreign films and the potential they might represent to a certain public, exhausted with the stencil-like formula of Tinsel Town’s film production. Additionally, a festival favorite might produce the next “it” director, such as Richard Linklater with “Boyhood” or Damien Chazelle with “Whiplash”
But does Sundance truly deliver the possibility of an indie film becoming a big cash generator at the box office? Let’s start at the very beginning: the submission process. The entry fee for Sundance is $80 for feature films and documentaries; short films pay an entry fee of $60. These are certainly not enough to break the bank, but unless the average filmmaker happens to have a relative or close friend in Park City that can provide overnight accommodations, a hotel can go from $350 up to a whooping $2.000 dollars per night. If airfare, meals, and transportation are added to the equation, a film that has the distinct fortune to screen at Sundance can end up totaling a wee fortune. So the question is: is it worth it? Do the films that premiere at Sundance and get picked up for distribution, flourish at the box-office? Let’s look at the figures produced from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival’s fifteen highest grossing films:
Source: Box Office Mojo
According to the online site The Daily Beast, the budget for Sundance’s number one darling “Whiplash”, was $24.000. However, Whiplash made a little over $13.000.000 nationwide, which certainly makes the entry fee, cost of plane tickets and price per nights at hotels seem like a subway token. The estimated budget for the film “Dear White People” according to IMDB was close to $1.70 million dollars. It made almost double that amount at the box office managing to clear $4.404.154, making this Indiegogo project a sound success.
It seems filmmaker’s kismet; to gross double or triple the amount of the film’s budget. Do the documentaries do as well as the features? “Life Itself”, the documentary based on the life of Chicago Sun Times film critic Roger Ebert, had an estimated box office gross of $810.454, which for a documentary is a pretty agreeable number. IMDB states on their site that an estimated of $150.000 was raised though an Indiegogo campaign, upon Ebert’s death from cancer in 2013; catapulting the doc at Sundance seems to have benefited its popularity by the time it was released nationwide in theaters.
Last, we take a look at “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night”, first time director Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature debut. Labeled “the first vampire Iranian western” the film trails a lonely female vampire in a dystopian wasteland called Bad City. Spoken in Farsi and skillfully shot in black and white, “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” according to Wired magazine’s website, had managed to raise an initial budget of approximately $90.000 on Indiegogo. The film was a huge success at last year’s Sundance, capturing the interest of classic films distributor Kino Lorber and making over $400.000 at the box-office.
Is it worth it then? It would seem from the numbers that it is. Films that succeed at Sundance are likely to get noticed by well-known distributors, and if truth be told, it is them and not the film critics who are the real mediators between the filmmakers and moviegoers. Although some think that Sundance has lost a bit of its independent spirit over the years (see http://www.artfilmfile.com/has-the-independent-spirit) it is still a venue that provides aspiring indie filmmakers, the very real possibility of success.