The high altitudes of Park City, UT — home to the Sundance Film Festival — have been known to cause dehydration, insomnia and an overappreciation of certain independent movies. What sparks standing ovations and multi-million dollar acquisitions in the rarefied confines of the snowbound town doesn’t always carry over into the outside world. For every “The Blair Witch Project,” “Super Size Me” or “Precious,” there’s a “Hustle and Flow,” “Hounddog” or “Hamlet 2.” Where do you draw the line between hype and reality, sleep deprivation-induced passing crush or bona fide true love? A really great film that will resonate with niche (or even mainstream) audiences, or one that happens to provide the weary festivalgoer adequate satisfaction when compared with all the muck? Here’s a little Sundance soothsaying about how four festival hits might fare when they arrive at a theater near you.
“The Kids Are All Right”
A late selection at the festival, director Lisa Cholodenko’s dramatic comedy about a lesbian couple (played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) confronted with their kids’ hippy sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo) was an undisputed hit of the festival. The film drew the fest’s biggest payday: Universal subsidiary Focus Features coughed up $5 million to distribute the film not only in the U.S., but key foreign countries, the U.K. South Africa and Germany. “Kids” also drew some of the most enthusiastic praise: Salon‘s Andrew O’Hehir said the film “ranks with the most compelling portraits of an American marriage, regardless of sexuality, in film history.”
Critical Buzz: Unlike Cholodenko’s darker previous efforts “High Art” and “Laurel Canyon,” “The Kids Are All Right” has a lightness of touch that many viewers foresee as its saving grace when it comes to the marketplace. While Variety critic Rob Nelson begrudged its “formulaic” qualities and “ingratiating sitcom-style entertainment,” these were nevertheless the traits that he admitted would lead to “solid” “commercial prospects.” The film had naysayers among certain bloggers and alternative press critics, but it’s the mainstream journalists — in whatever limited supply that still exists — that could drive ample positive word of mouth on the film.
Market Comparison: A story that centers on liberal L.A. lesbians may not find fans in Peoria, but observers feel that Cholodenko’s well-drawn likeable characters won’t scare away cosmopolitan audiences. And, after all, it was Focus Features that safely steered the gay cowboy movie “Brokeback Mountain” to an $83 million box office gross in 2005 and the Harvey Milk biopic “Milk” to $32 million in 2008. In the wake of Proposition 8 and the newly energized debate around gay marriage, “The Kids Are All Right” could serve as a lightening rod for political presses, furthering interest in the film.
Then again, straightforward sophisticated comedic dramas have had a hard time finding audiences lately. Unless the movie taps into the “It’s Complicated” romantic comedy crowd, “The Kids Are All Right” could be a film more fondly remembered at that progressive-friendly “granola festival” (as Variety critic Todd McCarthy disparagingly referred to Sundance) and then subsequently lost amidst next fall’s award season.
Prognosis: “Kids” will do all right.
What determines a film’s fate in the cruel, competitive marketplace isn’t just whether it’s good or not; it’s how its presented, handled, cultivated — in short, “marketed” — an ugly word for art-loving festivalgoers, but a necessary evil when it comes to film distribution. According to many viewers in Sundance, Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine” is a wrenching, brilliant, sensitively told story of a married couple’s unraveling, the kind of movie that discerning critics go out of their way to champion, but getting audiences to see is near impossible. As Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman asked, after writing a rave, “What sort of chance does this movie have in the real world?” Others put the onus on a “dedicated distributor” — in Variety‘s words — to muscle the film into the real world.
Industry Buzz: The news that the Weinstein Company would be that distributor, having acquired the film for a reported $1 million, raised some eyebrows. While “Blue Valentine” may have once been the kind of movie that Harvey Weinstein distributed — when indie films were still a novelty — the new TWC doesn’t have much of a track record with non-genre arthouse titles. The pairing of “Blue Valentine” with the brothers Weinsteins might seem like a match made in hell — or perhaps, a limbo place where financiers prefer dollar signs over delicate handling.
The Weinstein Company’s financial troubles are well known, and a number of smaller films on the company’s slate have gotten short shrift. For example, Andrew Jarecki’s “All Good Things,” which also stars Ryan Gosling, and “Shanghai,” starring John Cusack, have sat on the shelf for months. Another film, “Hurricane Season,” starring Forest Whitaker, went straight to DVD, much to the chagrin of its director Tim Story. Who’s to say “Blue Valentine” won’t suffer a similar fate if “it did not test well,” as TWC executive David Glasser recently said of “Hurricane Season.”
There is also a concern among some quarters that Harvey Weinstein, a.k.a. “Harvey Scissorhands,” might try to recut the film in a way that would soften what fans admired most about it. Certain critics have called the film a tad overlong. Then again, there’s always a chance that the Weinsteins, due to their financial pressures, are scaling back in a sincere way, looking for smaller, modest hits to put out in a marketplace that has largely abandoned the small-scale winner.
Market Comparison: Let’s give credit where credit is due: The Weinstein Company’s release of Tom Ford’s sad and stylish “A Single Man” is holding up admirably at over $5 million; the company also pushed for — and got — an Oscar nomination for star Colin Firth. “Blue Valentine” lovers can hope for the best given Gosling’s track record. His previous bold Sundance drama “Half Nelson,” which featured a similarly riveting performance in a story just as bracing, also got an Oscar nomination and a healthy arthouse box office take of $2.7 million.
Prognosis: Without love and attention, this “Valentine” will go sour.