Looking for Halley’s Comet at Sundance

At last year’s Sundance Film Festival, 26-year-old director Tony Bui scored a monster victory when his debut offering “Three Seasons,” took three awards, including both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes for best picture. But despite being the toast of Park City, Utah, the film about post-war Vietnam opened quietly in May with a $47,000 debut weekend at the box office. It topped off its theatrical run in August with little more than $2 million in ticket sales.

Despite the assumption that Sundance success equals box-office success, the reality shows that more often than not, the films that win the festival’s top awards have a tough time finding audiences in the real world. “I think it’s just the nature of the types of films shown at Sundance,” says Paul Dergarabedian of box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. “Generally, these films are not intended to be blockbusters and are more artistic in nature. The whole notion of the festival is quality of the work.”

The Cinderella story of “The Blair Witch Project” filmmakers Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez is often cited as the ultimate Sundance success. They were the guys with the $40,000 film that went on to gross more than $140 million. But what many fail to realize is that despite debuting at Sundance in 1999, “Blair Witch” didn’t win a single prize there. It wasn’t even a film in competition.

‘Blair Witch Project“‘s are the Halley’s comets of films,” says Hollywood Reporter film writer Dana Harris. “They come every few years, and people don’t realize how many indie films that do nothing come and go in between.”

One of the films that fell through the commercial cracks was “Judy Berlin.” The film won Eric Mendelsohn a directing award at the 1999 event. But while the film went on to work the festival scene, it never had a theatrical run in the United States.

“A lot of these films [that debut at Sundance] don’t have distribution,” Dergarabedian says. “And the reward of Sundance is that you might get a distribution deal, and your film gets seen. [But] a lot of movies go in and will not get distributed.”

The argument that award winners at Sundance might not be representative of the general moviegoing community is a powerful one. Unfortunately, it fails to explain one of the strangest epilogues to the 1999 festival.

First-time filmmaker Gough Lewis made headlines last January with his documentary about a 22-year-old Singaporean honors-student-by-day/hard-core porn actress by night. To some, “Sex: The Annabel Chong Story,” even more than “Blair Witch,” was the talk of the festival. Its reach was strong and immediate: People were enthralled, outraged, disturbed and/or disgusted. But despite all the attention (and it received far, far more than either “Three Seasons” or “Judy Berlin“), the film has yet to see a domestic theatrical run. (It is finally slated to open in a limited release early next month).

In the case of “Sex,” all the buzz may have actually hurt the film’s chances — as word eventually leaked that director Lewis had at one time been romantically linked to his subject. With his objectivity called into question, some believe Lewis destroyed any chance he had at making a legitimate, compelling feature.

“It didn’t surprise me that [“Sex“] didn’t get distribution,” says Harris. “The film was a bit of a disappointment in that it was intellectually bankrupt and kind of broke the code of documentary filmmaking.”

In the end, it really is the luck of the draw. Audiences are fickle, the fates are tricky, Hollywood’s tough. Even some of Sundance’s most-well-known alumni (“Clerks,” “The Brothers McMullen” and “El Mariachi“) couldn’t summon the broad appeal to top $10 million at the domestic box office.

“At Sundance, you’re lucky to get in at all,” Dergarabedian says. “You’re even luckier if you win and get a distribution deal. The formula you need at Sundance is not the same for a box-office hit.

“I don’t think that’s really the emphasis. The emphasis is on the quality and artistry of the work.”