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In The Soup
Credit: Everett Collection

As the independent film festival’s lineup is announced, we look back at some of the most notoriously buzzed about flicks — which were DOA at the box office everywhere else

In The Soup
Credit: Everett Collection

Buried (2010)

Buried seemed like some film-school experiment. When an American truck driver stationed in Iraq wakes up to find himself buried alive inside a coffin, he has only a lighter and a cell phone to meet his captors’ $5 million ransom before he runs out of oxygen. Sundance audiences swooned, and not only because the truck driver in question was soon-to-be Sexiest Man Alive Ryan Reynolds. Lionsgate forked over approximately $3.2 million for the claustrophobic thriller in 2010, and although critics ultimately approved, Buried grossed only $1 million domestically — though it fared well abroad. —Jeff Labrecque

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Hamlet 2 (2008)

As the story goes, 10 minutes into the premiere screening of the outrageous comedy — starring Steve Coogan as a sad-sack high school drama teacher who stages a musical sequel to Shakespeare’s great tragedy — the Focus acquisitions team were on the phone with president James Schamus, asking for permission to start bidding. Next came the inevitable bidding war, this time between Focus, Summit Entertainment, Weinstein Co., Lionsgate, and Warner Independent. Focus emerged the victor, coughing up $10 million. But in a perfect illustration of how excitement in the high altitudes of Park City almost never survives the trip back down to sea level, Hamlet 2 grossed $4.9 million in theaters. —Missy Schwartz

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American Teen (2008)

Nanette Burstein’s documentary about five high schoolers from small-town Indiana arrived in Park City with so much buzz that even those allergic to the words teen drama were curious. The movie enjoyed a rapturous response, and soon the doc’s stars — dubbed the Geek, the Jock, the Princess, the Heartthrob, and the Rebel — were the toast of the fest. After a cluster of eager buyers circled the film, Paramount Vantage beat out the competition with a bid just under $1 million. Which is about what the film ended up making in theaters. Despite an aggressive marketing campaign, Teen grossed a disappointing $942,441. Guess Paramount failed to realize that audiences could get their fill of adolescent docudrama for free on MTV. —MS

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Rocket Science (2007)

Rocket Science didn’t come to Sundance 2007 looking for a hot distribution deal. It already had one, courtesy of Picturehouse. What it needed was buzz. And buzz it got. Crowds gobbled up the quirky tale of a high school student who overcomes his stutter by joining the debate team. Jeffrey Blitz (of the wonderful documentary Spellbound) got a Directing Award. And Rocket seemed like just the kind of cutesy Sundance indie that could jump right into the mainstream with a little word-of-mouth. But come release time, no one cared. Rocket crashed and burned at $714,943. —MS

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Introducing the Dwights (2007)

Still not convinced that 2007 was a banner year for bullish over-paying? Allow us to present Introducing the Dwights, an Aussie romance starring Brenda Blethyn that went to Warner Independent for $4 million. Originally called Clubland, the studio renamed it for its U.S. release that summer. But apparently, moviegoers found the new title every bit as compelling as the original. Grosses maxed out at $379,408. —MS

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Joshua (2007)

Yep, even Fox Searchlight president Peter Rice, who oversaw the stunning success of Little Miss Sunshine, made a big boo-boo in 2007 when he handed over $3.7 million for Joshua, a creepy-kid thriller starring Sam Rockwell and Vera Farmiga. Released that summer, Joshua only managed to scare $482,355 worth of people. —MS

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Son of Rambow (2007)

In all fairness, Harvey and his posse at The Weinstein Company weren’t the only ones to go a little gaga at Sundance 2007. Paramount Vantage also got caught up in the post-Little Miss Sunshine madness, snatching up Son of Rambow, a quirky, ’80s-set British comedy about a boy obsessed with Rambo: First Blood, for just under $8 million. But the movie proved to be a weakling compared to the muscle-y hero its protagonist worshipped. Rambow topped out at $1.8 million. —MS

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Grace Is Gone (2007)

Another Sundance, another massive miscalculation from Harvey Weinstein. The exec paid $4 million for this low-budget drama, starring John Cusack as a husband and father in denial about his wife’s death in Iraq. The ink barely dry on the contract, Weinstein immediately started promising an Oscar nom for Cusack. Needless to say, that nomination never came. The movie grossed a painfully slim $50,899. Ouch. —MS

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Murderball (2005)

ThinkFilm’s documentary about paraplegics who play rugby (or ”murderball”) in tricked-out wheelchairs was an early surprise hit at the 2005 fest. It won the Audience Award, a special jury prize and, later, an Oscar nomination. For the summer release, ThinkFilm teamed up with MTV in an effort to appeal to young viewers. The $1.5 million gross wasn’t shameful, but well below expectations. —MS

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Pieces of April (2003)

Before she was Mrs. Tom Cruise, Katie Holmes swooshed into Sundance with a family dramedy that critics abhorred but audiences adored. The story of a proverbial black sheep (Holmes, egregiously miscast, according to many) who hosts Thanksgiving and makes amends with her long estranged, cancer-stricken mother (Patricia Clarkson) enjoyed a glowing reception. It scored the biggest deal of the fest — United Artists snapped it up for $3.5 million — and writer-director Peter Hedges was so moved by all the attention, he wept. But the momentum died in Park City. Not even Clarkson’s eventual Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination could push April past $2.5 million at the box office. —MS

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Tadpole (2002)

Sundance 2002 saw a record-breaking 14 acquisitions. The priciest deal went to Gary Winick’s low-budget comedy about a high school boy (Aaron Stanford) crushed out on an older woman (Sigourney Weaver). The flick was shot on digital video for $200,000 — and looked it. But that didn’t stop Harvey Weinstein from forking over $5 million. In the end, though, the movie’s Sundance buzz proved far bigger than its box-office bite of just $2.9 million. Is it any wonder that the following year, gun-shy Sundance buyers fretted about getting ”tadpoled”? —MS

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Blue Car (2002)

At the 2002 fest, Harvey Weinstein was, as usual, hot-to-shop. You can hardly blame him for falling in love with Blue Car, Karen Moncrieff’s promising directorial debut starring Agnes Bruckner (TV’s 24) as a troubled teen who gets involved with her English teacher (David Strathairn). Critics and festival audiences alike embraced the heady drama, and Weinstein picked it up for $1.5 million. Unfortunately, Blue Car got beaten up by bigger and shinier vehicles in theaters that summer, earning a meager $465,310. And Bruckner has yet to live up to the potential she showed here. —MS

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Girlfight (2000)

Karyn Kusama’s bold directorial debut caused a sensation in Park City, quickly becoming the It movie of the 2000 fest. A four-day bidding war ended with Screen Gems scooping up the film for around $3 million. And at the end of the fest, the film, starring future Lost-girl Michelle Rodriguez as a teenage boxer, won the Grand Jury prize, while Kusama went home with a directing award. Though it made a name for both Rodriguez and Kusama, Girlfight ended up packing a relatively weak punch at the box office: $1.6 million. —MS

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Happy Texas (1999)

For years, this comedy about two heterosexual escaped cons (Steve Zahn and Jeremy Northam) who pretend to be gay beauty-pageant judges was the gold standard in what were they thinking?! Sundance deals. The goofy crowd-pleaser generated boatloads of buzz and earned Zahn a special jury prize. So surely Harvey Weinstein made a brilliant move in forking over $10 million, right? Ha! It barely eked out $2 million at the box office. —MS

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Slam (1998)

This gritty drama about a Washington, D.C., slam-poet (Saul Williams) who ends up in prison on a drug charge won the Grand Jury prize and loads of acclaim for director Marc Levin. Trimark Pictures snatched up the movie for $2.5 million, and the press seemed convinced that Levin was the Next Big Thing in filmmaking. When the film grossed $982,214, they changed their minds. —MS

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Next Stop Wonderland (1998)

The charming dramedy starring a fresh-faced Hope Davis as an unlucky-in-love Boston nurse pleased crowds at the ’98 fest, and prompted Harvey Weinstein to pony up $6 million. Supposedly, Weinstein saw in writer-director Brad Anderson (who’d later make the polarizing Christian Bale flick The Machinist) an exciting new filmmaker to add to his posse of Tarantinos and Rodriguezes. Alas. The picture made $3.4 million. Weinstein never made another movie with Anderson. —MS

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The House of Yes (1997)

At the 1997 festival, Harvey Weinstein, at the time still the boss of Miramax, was so smitten with this black comedy about a disturbed young woman (Parker Posey) who thinks she’s Jackie Kennedy that he paid $2 million for the distribution rights. Posey (who was also in town supporting Clockwatchers) won special recognition for her performance. Audiences, however, responded to House of Yes with a resounding NO. The movie grossed $617,403 in theaters. —MS

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The Myth of Fingerprints (1997)

When Bart Freundlich’s first feature premiered in Park City, the New York Times dubbed it ”one of the more commercially viable films emerging from the competition this year.” Yet the assessment of EW’s own Lisa Schwarzbaum was more on the money: ”Myth is about four grown children who come home to work out their romantic problems and their parental issues during one Thanksgiving weekend. I’d describe it as the backstory to a Ralph Lauren ad: pretty people (ER‘s junior hunk Noah Wyle and Julianne Moore, among others) in pretty settings Woody Allen might admire, having tasteful crises.” Which, in box office terms, translated to a gross of $523,000. —MS

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The Spitfire Grill (1996)

Originally called Care of the Spitfire Grill, this Audience Award-winning tearjerker starring Marcia Gay Harden and Ellen Burstyn generated so much hype and hopes for mainstream crossover potential that Castle Rock bought it for a then-record (and still shocking) $10 million. Unfortunately for Castle Rock, Spitfire grossed just $12.7 million in theaters, which wasn’t abysmal for an indie back then. But with marketing costs factored in, it’s unlikely the treacly melodrama turned a profit. And it’s not as if anyone’s talking about the cinematic influence of writer-director Lee David Zlotoff. Who? Exactly. —MS

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What Happened Was … (1994)

1994 might have been the year that Sundance turned Clerks director Kevin Smith into an overnight sensation, but it was character actor Tom Noonan (Manhunter) who left Park City with the biggest endorsement. His feature directorial debut about lonely New Yorkers won the Grand Jury Prize, a screenwriting award, and a distribution deal with Samuel Goldwyn. But what happened in theaters wasn’t so sunny: the flick grossed $327,482. —MS

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In the Soup (1998)

Steve Buscemi starred in this entertainment-biz satire as an aspiring screenwriter who teams up with a gangster (Seymour Cassel) in a desperate attempt to get his opus produced. Directed by Alexandre Rockwell (who was, back then, married to one of the film’s stars, Jennifer Beals), the movie beat Reservoir Dogs, El Mariachi, and Gas Food Lodging for the coveted Grand Jury Prize, and snagged a distribution deal with the now-defunct Triton Pictures. But when it came time to release it later that year, Soup slurped up just $256,000. —MS

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