It happens every year: films go to Sundance, play to packed crowds, win Jury prizes and/or score big deals ... and then essentially disappear. It happened in 2005, when Ira Sachs' Forty Shades of Blue took home the Dramatic Grand Jury prize, only to open nine months later on just three screens and eventually gross barely $75,000 in its 84 day release. It happened again last year, when The Darwin Awards and Right at Your Door landed multi-million dollar deals with major distributors, only to be shelved indefinitely. I guess if you're an acquisitions exec, it's easy to get carried away up there on the mountain, but sometimes the same picture that thrilled a packed crowd at the Racquet Club looks downright unmarketable back at the office in L.A. So, with the caveat that I have neither a crystal ball nor any sort of reliable inside information, here are my picks for five Sundance '07 films that will actually see a meaningful release sometime before Sundance '08.
1) The Ten (Cinematical review)
Stu Van Airsdale thinks Manohla Dargis was talking about this film in the NY Times, when she described a distributor who sat through a "bad comedy that features a clutch of low-level film and television actors" whilst fantasizing about "all those recognizable [actor] names once they are printed on a DVD box." I'm actually convinced Ms. Dargis was referencing Gregg Araki's Smiley Face, a stoner comedy starring Anna Faris and half the cast of That 70's Show, which was apparently so awful that even die-hard Araki fans couldn't sit through it. I think if Dargis had attended a public screening of The Ten -- or if she had even caught a glimpse of the hundreds of high school and college kids lining up for the wait list as long as eight hours in advance of the picture's second-to-last show -- she would have a hard time condemning a distributor for trying to cash in on it.
The movie, which was written and directed by David Wain of Wet Hot American Summer fame, consists of ten short segments, one representing each of the ten commandments, strung together by some filler involving Paul Rudd not being able to decide if he'd rather screw Jessica Alba, Famke Janssen or (this is not a typo) Dianne Wiest. It may be less engaging than a 90-minute stint watching old clips of The State on YouTube, but it's got huge college-campus potential, where boys and girls have been known to consume comedy without bothering to consult the second film critic for the New York Times to see if she approves. With savvy marketing, and maybe a few structural tweaks, this could be the sleeper comedy hit of the summer.
2) Grace is Gone (Cinematical review; Netscape coverage)
The ink was still wet on the acquisition contract when Harvey Weinstein announced his plans to mount an Oscar campaign on behalf of this eventual double-Jury-award winner, causing at least one critic to wonder if the legendary mogul was maybe blinded by his own rep as a "marketing magician." Harvey's recent failure to get anyone to care about Factory Girl aside, I have no doubt that he'll throw his weight behind the oh-so-topical Grace. But -- and sorry in advance for the terrible pun -- Harvey's weight isn't as formidable as it used to be. You'll certainly have ample opportunity to see Grace is Gone, and to watch Weinstein and Cusack prattle on and on about how they're saving Middle America by turning its habits and inhabitants into caricatures. Unless Little Miss Sunshine has exhausted the American appetite for shitily-rendered indie roadtrip cliches, Grace is Gone will do well at the box office. But unfortunately for Harvey, I think they film is too indifferently made to springboard the apparently-desperate Weinstein Co. back to the top of the Oscar heap.
3) Ghosts of Abu Ghraib (Cinematical review; Netscape coverage)
It wasn't the most comprehensive Iraq documentary to premiere at Sundance 2007 (that honor goes to Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight), but Ghosts of Abu Ghraib is nonetheless an extremely successful piece of dramatic investigative journalism. Though director Rory Kennedy (daughter of RFK, niece of Senator Ted) makes just enough of a gesture towards balance to avoid charges of propaganda, her thesis (in a nutshell: abuse at the prison was committed by naive children who were following orders handed down from Don Rumsfeld himself) should prove incendiary enough to provide Sean Hannity and friends rant fodder for weeks. Expect a decent-sized media storm to start about a week before the doc's February 22 HBO premiere.
4) Red Road (Cinematical review)
Red Road won't be remembered as a Sundance discovery, but as a Cannes breakthrough -- it won the Grand Jury prize at that festival before sweeping the Scottish BAFTAs late last year. This first feature by Oscar-winning shorts director Andrea Arnold, about a female surveillance camera operator who becomes obsessed with a familiar face on her wall of screens, plays like a mash-up of two Antonioni masterpieces: imagine the paranoid, manic voyeurism of Blow-Up transplanted to a contemporary toxic urban dystopia reminiscent of Red Desert's industrial Italy, with an almost Ken Loachian dose of class critique thrown in. All of that said, foreign language films are never safe bets in the current cultural climate; Red Road may technically be in English, but its dialogue is spoken in a Scottish brogue so thick it needs to be subtitled. It went into Sundance (where it screened in the unfortunately-marginalized Spectrum section) with U.S. distribution via Tartan, who plan to open the film in limited release in April. It may be an uphill struggle, but if Tartan manages a smooth expansion to the major markets, Red Road has the potential to be the must-see art house film of the summer.
5) Black Snake Moan (Cinematical review)
I had trouble picking a fifth film for this list. This slot almost went to Tamara Jenkins' The Savages, starring Oscar-bait dream couple Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman; then I changed my mind and cast a vote for Waitress, the sunny romantic fable directed by the late Adrienne Shelly. But, though both of those pictures have seemingly viable marketing hooks, I can easily imagine a distributor abandoning the effort if a film less in need of coddling comes along. But based on the fun its stars and distributor Paramount Vantage seem to be having marketing this thing, I think chances are good that you're not only going to be able to see Black Snake Moan -- for at least a week in mid-February, you're not going to be able to get away from it.
Think of all the immediate angles for feature stories: for Christina Ricci, this is something of a comeback; for Samuel L. Jackson, who sings the blues in the film, it's a much-needed career stretch; for Justin Timberlake, it's a chance to talk about something other than dumping Cameron Diaz or his campaign to bring sexy back. Still, in order to break the genre film barrier (a task at which the recent films of all three stars have failed) Black Snake Moan is going to have to hit all four quadrants, and it might be difficult to get, say, older women excited about a gothic comedy about a white trash nymphomaniac who spends the bulk of the film chained to a radiator. If Paramount Vantage is smart, they'll create a separate trailer that highlights the fact that at the end of the day, this is a movie about a spiritual Black man who saves a couple of wayward white folks from themselves -- it's basically Driving Miss Daisy with exposed breasts.