Picture this: Ashton Kutcher in a cowboy hat zipping around Park City, Utah, in a Hummer, promoting his much-ridiculed studio flick The Butterfly Effect and spouting lines like ”I look at this festival as the cinema. It’s America’s art…” Now imagine the crew of the Jaws — meets — Blair Witch hit Open Water — shot for chum change with real actors and real sharks — huddled together in the wee hours on Jan. 18. That morning, Lions Gate had offered a $2.1 million deal, good for only 36 hours. They’d just accepted. Writer-director Chris Kentis recalls the modest celebration: ”We found our actors and had a bunch of drinks,” he says. ”Nothing particularly creative.” (See a review of this and others on page 118.)
Now you have an idea of the bloated glitz and indie blossoming that was Sundance 2004, which boasted Paris Hilton in a series of tight outfits at a series of packed parties as well as a snappy feeding frenzy: Twelve films were snagged before the festival ended.
By contrast, 2003 — which featured the debuts of eventual Oscar nominees American Splendor, Capturing the Friedmans, The Cooler, Pieces of April, and Thirteen — saw only five festival deals but spawned an optimism that rolled into 2004. ”The bidding was more aggressive than I would have expected,” says Lions Gate Releasing president Tom Ortenberg. ”Certainly more so than last year — but I think that reflects the more commercial nature of a couple of the films.”
One of those being the much-cooed-over Napoleon Dynamite, for which Fox Searchlight paid $3 million. While Dynamite is a first feature from a group of twentysomething Utah natives, they clearly don’t think like gee-whiz newcomers. The filmmakers’ deal stipulates that their coming-of-age comedy will play in the top 25 markets — ensuring that people who weren’t loopy on thin air and Skittles will see it. This was smart, since the $400,000 Dynamite features none of the coming-of-age staples: no awkward sex scenes, experimental boozing, or even swearing. ”Having a faith liberates you creatively…to try and do something different,” says director Jared Hess, 24, who’s a practicing Mormon. ”I guess in a studio comedy, there’s pressure to show, like, butt cheeks. But honestly, how many people want to see butt cheeks?”
While a straw poll determined that a good number of people do in fact like a nice tush shot, the buying went on: The Motorcycle Diaries, based on Che Guevara’s journals, landed at Focus Features for $4 million. This made it one of Sundance’s highest payouts, which insiders — or sour grapers — deemed foolish for domestic rights to a Spanish-language film. (Consider: Sundance 2003’s biggest hit, American Splendor, barely cleared $6 million.) The marital-discord drama We Don’t Live Here Anymore scored a reported $2 million from the newly minted Warner Independent Pictures, thanks in part to stars Mark Ruffalo and Naomi Watts.
Boosted by 2003’s documentary darlings Spellbound and Friedmans, nonfiction films were trendier than Ugg boots. Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me, a chronicle of his 30-day all-McDonald’s diet, turned its charming star into a local celeb, while Sundancers elbowed their way into I Like Killing Flies, about Manhattan’s Shopsin’s eatery. Sony Pictures Classics grabbed the surfing documentary Riding Giants (reportedly for $2 million), and Palm took Grand Jury Prize winner DIG!, Ondi Timoner’s chronicle of rival rock musicians. A few years before, Timoner had nearly turned her raucous footage into a reality show for MTV. ”I became scared by their notes,” she says. ”Like the fact that we couldn’t have cigarettes on screen.”