January's Sundance Film Festival guarantees exposure but not box office success. Some of last year's favorites got chilly receptions in the real world.

Acceptance to the Sundance Film Festival is a bit like acceptance to Harvard: Going in, you’re a star who has beaten hundreds of other contenders for a coveted spot. Coming out, there are no guarantees you won’t be fleeing to some far-off place to find yourself.

”The 10 days becomes a fulcrum on which all of your work rests,” says Tim Blake Nelson, writer and director of Eye of God, one of last year’s 18 entries in the dramatic competition. After years of work on a film, ”I don’t care if you win every prize there is to win and get the most extraordinary distribution deal — you’re bound to be disappointed.”

With this year’s festival around the corner, filmmakers are anxiously wondering how their work will be received. Judging from last year’s 10-day-long fete of independents, it’s fair to say…who knows? Whether or not your film is well received, it’s good to be there, says Strays director-actor-writer Vin Diesel, because ”there’s so much damn exposure.” Which can, depending on the film, be a blessing or a curse. Either way, Sundance’s class of 1997 learned most of the following lessons the hard way.

DISTRIBUTORS AND CRITICS CAN BE A DEVASTATING TEST AUDIENCE. Every year, some movies in the competition just aren’t ready to be seen. Diesel, who arrived at Sundance seeking funds to finish Strays, had to show his ode to hangin’ with the guys on an Avid editing machine without the final sound mix, an act that he says ”killed the mystique.” And Gina Resnick, producer of last year’s Clockwatchers — a comedy-drama about a group of office temps — had seen her completed film only once before it was screened for crucial distributors and critics. ”If you get in, it’s hard to say no, and you rush the film,” she says. ”You take chances.”

The film, which stars Toni Collette, Parker Posey, and Lisa Kudrow, became the 1997 festival’s first victim. ”Given the cast and the subject matter, people believed that it was a slacker 9 to 5,” Resnick says. In horror, she watched as the audience went from laughing riotously at the opening scene to sitting in confused silence when it became apparent that Clockwatchers was not a broad comedy but a rather serious film. ”I thought I was going to pass out,” Resnick remembers. The movie left the festival without a distributor and underwent more months of editing before BMG Independents picked it up for release this April.

NO BUZZ IS GOOD BUZZ. Coming in under the radar may be the best kind of entrance. ”The festival is all about who is going to get picked up, and everyone wants to make their discovery,” says Alex Sichel, the director of Fine Line’s All Over Me. ”We definitely got less attention because we came in with a distributor.” That attention went, instead, to distributor-less films like In the Company of Men; winning rave reviews, Men was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics and went on to earn just under $3 million. By contrast, All Over Me made few ripples at the box office or within the industry.