Is Sundance really profitable for Indie Filmmakers? Art Film File cracks the numbers.

sundance film festival

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:

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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 it is still a venue that provides aspiring indie filmmakers, the very real possibility of success.


Has the independent spirit left Sundance for good? By Adriana Delgado



About ADRIANA DELGADO 68 Articles
Art Film File is a site for cinephiles ,who like myself, have a deep respect, love, and admiration for independent and foreign films of every era. Readers who follow Art Film File are for the most part adverse to the "Hollywood Blockbuster" theorem (although there are many good ones out there) showing instead a strong inclination to connect with films that explore topics such as life, identity and philosophy without necessarily following a neat studio-oriented narrative. In the past, much like it is now, many independent and foreign films get done many times with countless challenges. Small budgets, little or no outside funding and absence of willing distributors are some of the problems that many American and foreign independent filmmakers face regularly. Art Film File acts as a conduit in bringing these films, past and present, to the public's attention. Art Film File is also a site that displays detailed reviews about films they haven't seen as well as for films they have seen and wish to share their own views. I plan to include interviews with filmmakers and actors of indie and foreign films in addition to articles depicting topics of interest for readers who already follow Art Film File and for those waiting to discover it. Adriana Delgado Founder and Blog Manager of Art Film File

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