In January of 2012, director Benh Zeitlin's debut feature Beasts of the Southern Wild premiered to 1,270 Sundance attendees who, as the triumphant score crescendoed into the end credits, leapt out of their seats into a standing ovation. Audience reaction quickly poured out of the screening, many suggesting the movie was an early lock for award-season and the end-of-the-year Oscar race. A premature response from the energized festival-goers? Apparently not.
Zeitlin's drama-with-a-drop-of-fantasy was quickly grabbed by Fox Searchlight following Sundance, where it picked up steam upon release and landed four Oscar nominations at the 85th Academy Awards. Beasts actually winning those awards against competition like Silver Linings Playbook and Steven Spielberg's Lincoln looks unlikely, but the mere fact of its presence is a triumph for the little guys. The really little guys.
The definition of independent film and the culture of the Sundance Film Festival has changed since Robert Redford's Park City, Utah experiment first kicked off in 1978. Thanks to Hollywood's "blockbuster or bust" mentality, the types of lower-budget films that once peppered the studio slates are now done for low budgets with actors looking to gain a little indie cred. Instead of funding the next breakout comedy, award-contending drama, or even horror franchise, studios are looking to Sundance for recommendations. Welcome those crafty and daring enough to bring their visions to screen, then pick them up for movie-goers to enjoy.
Following Sundance buzz also puts you, the future audience, in control of what they may see in their multiplexes later that year. Reception from those on the ground at Park City is only the first step. Through social media and Internet comments, Sundance has found a way to put those in the driver's seat. Hear about a movie you love? Make it loud and clear and that movie may eventually find a home.
Beasts' big win sends a message to studios: original ideas can connect with audiences. The film made a solid $11 million in its summer run this past year, but now that it has a few awards to its name, the business is expected to go up. 2013's collection of titles that may have looked too fringe for the masses suddenly seem like fresh ideas ripe for the picking. Same goes for documentary films — four of the five Oscar nominees debuted at the 2012 fest. The outsider, The Gatekeepers, will play at Sundance 2013. With VOD, Netflix, and other streaming services emerging as major avenues of digestion, buyers are more eager than ever to pick up the Sundance movies. There's something for everyone when it comes to the festival line-up. For the first time, those movies can finally see the light of day in some shape or form. The scale of release comes down to demand.
Along with being a place for discovery, Sundance also works as a launching pad for those brazen enough to stay completely independent. Shane Carruth isn't the first DIY filmmaker to keep his films close to the chest, but after wowing audiences with his heady sci-fi movie Primer in 2004, the director is hoping to recreate the magic by distributing his 2013 Sundance premiere, Upstream Color, on his own. Through crafty marketing and image-heavy teaser trailers, Carruth has built up excitement for the movie. He's building towards the Sundance premiere, which likely produce divisive reactions. The controversy should help bring more eyes to the movie and leverage the film when it makes its way to theaters and VOD in Spring 2013.
In the early days of Sundance, the festival's stories — the shocks, the praise, the general tastemaking — rarely impacted those outside major cities with independent cinemas. In other words, most places around the world. But that's the past; we're living in a post-Beasts world where a Sundance unknown can end a year-long journey at the Best Directors table. We're living in a movie-going landscape where even the smallest film can find steal the spotlight for a mere second, zip through Twitter feeds and Facebook walls, and connect with someone who is going to love it. Sundance 2013 is right around the corner — are you going to be watching?
Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches
[Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight]