More than a hundred new films unspool every January at the Sundance Film Festival, many of them never to be seen again. So what is it that draws stars, studio moguls and journalists to these snowbound screenings year after year? It's the hope that they'll see something new and groundbreaking, fresh and original, something that in turn will wow moviegoers everywhere else.

After all, Sundance has a long history of turning obscure filmmakers into showbiz Cinderellas, of serving as a farm team scouting indie filmmakers who can play in the Hollywood big leagues -- or, if you prefer, simply introducing the world to great artists who might not otherwise have seen the light of day.

Here are 15 of the biggest breakout hits from Sundance, films that either became huge box office smashes or were enormously influential (or both), movies that proved that the road to Hollywood success often begins in Utah. More than a hundred new films unspool every January at the Sundance Film Festival, many of them never to be seen again. So what is it that draws stars, studio moguls and journalists to these snowbound screenings year after year? It's the hope that they'll see something new and groundbreaking, fresh and original, something that in turn will wow moviegoers everywhere else.

After all, Sundance has a long history of turning obscure filmmakers into showbiz Cinderellas, of serving as a farm team scouting indie filmmakers who can play in the Hollywood big leagues -- or, if you prefer, simply introducing the world to great artists who might not otherwise have seen the light of day.

Here are 15 of the biggest breakout hits from Sundance, films that either became huge box office smashes or were enormously influential (or both), movies that proved that the road to Hollywood success often begins in Utah.

15. 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' (1994). When it started three decades ago, Sundance was called the U.S. Film Festival, but it now screens movies from all over the world. Sometimes they're from remote places with exotic cultures, and sometimes they're from America's English-speaking cousins across the pond. Shortly after 'Four Weddings' played Sundance, it opened in U.S. theaters and became a monster hit, making a huge star of Hugh Grant, and rewrote the rules for romantic comedies. It grossed $245 million worldwide, making it one the biggest box office hits in Sundance history.

14. 'Precious' (2009). From the get-go, this harrowing tale of a Harlem teen struggling to overcome her horrific upbringing was a favorite with both audiences and the Sundance jury. (And this in a strong year at the festival that also offered such acclaimed films as '(500) Days of Summer,' 'The Cove' and 'The Messenger.') Blessed by Oprah and Tyler Perry, 'Precious' rolled out of Sundance on a wave of hype, with unknown Gabourey Sidibe touted as an instant star and comedian Mo'Nique (as Precious' abusive mom) touted as a Best Supporting Actress Oscar frontrunner when 2009 was barely a month old. But when America finally saw the film, viewers agreed, and 'Precious' is on the way to making good on all of its promises.

13. 'Donnie Darko' (2001). Richard Kelly's twisted enigma of a movie, about a haunted teen and his surreal visions, was the kind of bizarre, independent, personal dream project that Sundance has long made it a mission to nurture. It wasn't a hit out of the box, but its success on DVD helped make Jake Gyllenhaal a star, confirm Drew Barrymore's discerning taste as a producer, provide an image-altering late-career role for Patrick Swayze, and launch a million late-night college bull sessions about What Does It All Mean?

12. 'Hustle & Flow' (2005). It's hard out here for a pimp -- and for an indie filmmaker, for that matter. But Craig Brewer managed to score a whopping $9 million distribution deal for his hip-hop drama, thanks to its irresistible soundtrack an its smoldering lead performance by Terrence Howard. The one-two punch of 'Hustle' and 'Crash' that summer made Howard a star, and an eventual Oscar nominee. Three 6 Mafia won an Oscar for 'It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp,' surely the edgiest, most uncompromising tune ever to win that trophy.


11.
'Memento' (2001). Writer/director Christopher Nolan was another star made by Sundance, thanks to this diabolical puzzle box, a murder mystery that unfolds backwards, told by a hero with no short-term memory. Nolan's penchant for narrative sleight-of-hand, elusive and amoral villains, and sleuths haunted by guilt they can never assuage all turned out to make him the ideal director to revive the 'Batman' franchise.



10. 'Napoleon Dynamite' (2004). From Sundance came another singular comedic voice (that of filmmakers Jared and Jerusha Hess), another rags-to-riches success story (shot for $400,000, it made a hundred times that at the box office) and another indelible mark of pop culture, thanks to the one-of-a-kind small-town nerd hero played by Jon Heder without any pandering for audience sympathy. Say, doesn't just reading about this movie make you hungry for tater tots right now? And vote for Pedro!


9. 'Garden State' (2004). Zach Braff proved he was much more than a goofy face on 'Scrubs' by writing, directing, starring in and curating the soundtrack for this dramedy that set the indie template for years to come. For better or worse, after Braff and Natalie Portman shared earphones in 'Garden State,' it seemed like all you needed to make an indie-film splash was a sensitive boy, a manic pixie dream girl, a highway and a cool-geeky alt-rock band like the Shins on the soundtrack.


8. 'Saw' (2004). The highly influential horror film, which has spawned half a dozen sequels and a "torture porn" vogue encompassing countless grisly imitators, got its first American exposure in Park City. The film helped cement Sundance's reputation as a starmaker at the grindhouse, not just the art-house.





7. 'Clerks' (1994). Inspired by such micro-budgeted DIY Sundance successes as Richard Linklater's 'Slacker' and Robert Rodriguez' 'El Mariachi,' Kevin Smith cobbled together $27,000 and shot his own autobiographical comedy about working at a New Jersey convenience store. The film wasn't pretty to look at (indeed, detractors say Smith still hasn't learned to wield a camera to this day), but the filmmaker's voice was brash, original, profane and hilarious.


6. 'An Inconvenient Truth' (2006). Sundance has always been a strong showcase for documentaries as well as fiction features. No non-fiction film ever made more of its Sundance boost than this one, which went on to win every prize under the ozone layer, including two Oscars (it's the only doc to win more than one Academy Award) and the Nobel Peace Prize for narrator Al Gore. Whether or not you take the former Vice President's global-warming slide show as gospel or hot air, you have to admit that this movie set the terms of the debate over climate change and how to fight it.

5. 'El Mariachi' (1992). The myth behind this movie -- that it cost just $7,000 to make but earned back $2 million in theaters -- isn't really the whole story. (Once Columbia bought it, the studio spent $200,000 cleaning it up in post-production and millions more on prints and advertising.) Still, the movie was a remarkably assured and thrilling piece of action filmmaking (especially for a first-time director working on a tiny budget). It made Robert Rodriguez a bankable genre-film director, helped establish Austin, Texas as a center of indie-filmmaking and inspired a million other rookie directors to believe that their own DIY efforts could be as good as any slickly-produced Hollywood spectacle.

4.
'Little Miss Sunshine' (2006). A indie movie with a jaded view of suburban America and a plot borrowed from 'National Lampoon's Vacation' -- there wasn't much new or groundbreaking about 'Little Miss Sunshine,' but it did have an original voice, one alternately cynical and sentimental about family life, Americana and the true meaning of success. That rickety VW Microbus on its little-engine-that-could journey to California became a nice metaphor for the film's own voyage toward the Kodak Theater, where it won Oscars for Michael Arndt's screenplay and Alan Arkin's supporting performance. Along the way, the movie made Abigail Breslin a star, made Fox Searchlight (which paid $10.5 million for the film, a Sundance record) the art-house distributor of choice and racked up $60 million in theaters.

3.
'The Blair Witch Project' (1999). The archetypal Sundance film that came out of nowhere, 'Blair Witch' took full advantage of the obscurity of its filmmakers and actors and the shaky-cam aesthetics of its tiny production budget. The movie's cheap but effective chills and its Internet-savvy marketing campaign convinced a lot of gullible moviegoers that it was built from documentary footage of real events. Result: A film shot for $60,000 returned $141 million in theaters, revolutionized movie marketing and reinvented the horror genre.

2. 'sex, lies, and videotape'(1989). In 1988, Steven Soderbergh was a Sundance bus driver, shuttling famous folks around Park City during the festival. A year later, he was the toast of the festival with this debut film, a slick drama about adultery, lust and the way technology and media distance us from each other instead of pulling us closer together. Besides launching Soderbergh as a director and turning James Spader into the icon of kink that he would be for the rest of his career, 'sex' also earned a cool $25 million, made Miramax an industry power player and turned the world's eyes toward Sundance as a place to discover talented hitmakers (who could be bought up on the cheap). Sundance made 'sex,' but 'sex' also made Sundance.

1. 'Reservoir Dogs' (1992). In the middle of its Sundance premiere, the projector broke. In fact, indie-film history broke in half pretty much at that moment - B.Q. and A.Q. (Before Quentin and After Quentin). Tarantino's explosive heist-gone-wrong tale rewrote the rules for everyone -- for screenwriters (with its formal daring, poetic profanity, baroque violence and encyclopedic grasp of pop culture history), for aspiring directors (if a video store clerk with a dream could raise $1.5 million, put a script into Harvey Keitel's hand and make this movie, then anyone could), for distributors (the Sundance feeding frenzy that began with 'sex, lies, and videotape' suddenly kicked into high gear after 'Reservoir Dogs'), for studios (once-disreputable genre films became A-list projects, and everyone was greenlighting films about chatty gangsters) and for moviegoers (either you were hip to Tarantino or you were square). Tarantino remade Sundance and Hollywood in his own image, for better or worse, and it would be a long time before the film business (and Tarantino himself) would begin to climb out from under his shadow.

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