Let's Choke Some Sugar Outta Sundance

Pour some Sugar on me: The Half Nelson follow-up is all great.
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PARK CITY, Utah -- Three-quarters of the way through Sundance 2008, the good news is that the festival lineup has turned out to be one of the strongest in the eight years I've been coming to Park City. The bad news -- for the makers of those films and for those of you wondering when you might have a chance to see them for yourselves -- is that sales activity remains stuck in a veritable deep freeze.

While the last 48 hours have produced at least one of those Sundance Cinderella stories in which a movie (in this case, the Steve Coogan-as-a-high-school-teacher comedy Hamlet 2) sells for an astronomical sum ($10 million) following an all-night bidding war, there have been far greater reports of small, critically lauded films (such as the upstate New York immigrant-smuggling drama Frozen River) selling for modest, mid-six-figure prices, and hotly buzzed-about titles from the festival's opening days (including Sunshine Cleaning and The Great Buck Howard) remaining in distribution limbo as the festival heads into its final weekend. (Henry Poole is Here, directed by Mark Pellington and starring Luke Wilson and Radha Mitchell, is also off the table after a $3.5-million U.S. pick-up courtesy Overture Films.)

Writers' strike or no, this wait-and-see attitude on the part of indie companies and studio-owned specialty divisions alike isn't that surprising when you consider the numbers: Of last year's entire Sundance crop, only the Keri Russell-starring Waitress made any significant impact at the box office, and its $19-million gross wasn't exactly the stuff that Little Miss Sunshines are made of. Meanwhile, three much-ballyhooed grads from the Sundance class of '07 -- Joshua, Grace Is Gone and Introducing the Dwights -- failed to crack the $1 million ceiling at the North American box office after making headlines with their seven-figure sales to (respectively) Fox Searchlight, The Weinstein Company and Warner Independent.

Of course, buying and releasing independent films isn't exactly -- to borrow the title of another Sundance '07 non-starter -- Rocket Science. It's more like a game of chance in which movie executives place their bets in January on what movies might pay off with general audiences six, nine or even 12 months down the line. Factor in a slumping economy and the simple reality of distribution vets who've been burned one too many times and -- voila! -- Sundance 2008 stars to look less like a shark-filled feeding frenzy than a convocation of shock-collared dogs keeping generous distance from the invisible fence.

Steve Coogan and Catherine Keener in Hamlet 2, which went for Little Miss Sunshine dough-re-mi.

One exception to this trend has been Fox Searchlight's decision to shell out a reported $5 million for Choke, actor-director Clark Gregg's annoyingly in-your-face adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel about a sex-addicted medical-school dropout (Joshua star Sam Rockwell) caring for his dementia-stricken mother (Anjelica Huston, who gives the kind of over-the-top performance actors-turned-directors often encourage from their cast). Choke won't come close to turning a profit when it's finally released, but it's the sort of Sundance film that distributors flock to like lemmings because, hey, at least it has some sort-of name stars, and even if it tanks in theaters it is guaranteed immortality in the annals of late-night cable TV. See for yourself.

Every Sundance competition is good for at least a few of those, but whereas Sundance 2007 seemed positively overrun with them (to the point that some observers suggested that Sundance -- knowingly or not -- had been responsible for cultivating a certain type of high-concept, pseudo-mainstream “indie” movie), this year's festival has produced a battery of fresh and uncompromising new filmmaking voices more concerned with matters of art than commerce.

First-time director Lance Hammer's exquisitely rendered Mississippi delta drama Ballast is arguably as fine a film as has ever played Sundance, as is Half Nelson creators Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden's baseball drama Sugar (about which I'll have more to say in my festival wrap story). But even less uniformly successful Sundance offerings, such as Venezuelan-born director Chusy Haney-Jardine's absurdist panorama Anywhere, USA and writer-director-actor Matthew Stanton's modern black western North Starr, have been works of genuine ambition and personal artistry, no matter their (in some cases considerable) failings. Indeed, look past the hype at Sundance 2008, and it is possible to feel the stirrings of an indie-film renaissance -- and that is something for which no price tag is too great. --Scott Foundas

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