There’s a certain fever moviegoers get while they’re at the Sundance Film Festival (in the case of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, that’s literally so). It feels like the center of the Universe while you’re there; we fail to realize that the rest of the world barely cares because “Two and a Half Men” is still on, or the NFL playoffs are in full swing. The Sundance buzz rarely translates outside of Park City. It may feel like the best the year has to offer in film, and when you walk out of certain movies, you may even have the sense that it’s going to take the world by storm, that a few of them might part the red sea of Hollywood formula, that America will finally stand up and take notice of something creative and original and bold.
But it never happens. Or, rarely so. Actual box-office hits, even modest ones like Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite or Little Miss Sunshine are a rarity. The biggest Sundance films produce talent — like Quentin Tarantino (Resovoir Dogs) or Kevin Smith (Clerks) or Christopher Nolan (Memento) or Steve Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape) — before they produce actual box-office grosses. The first time I went to Sundance, I was certain that films like Rocket Science and Waitress would break-out, but — like most Sundance titles — they came and went with little notice, except often in influence. The three biggest buzzed about movies at the 2010 film festival, for instance, were perhaps Blue Valentine, Buried and happythankyourmoreplease. Blue Valentine has some awards consideration, but hasn’t broken $7 million at the box office yet; Buried barely made $1 million (but made a directing star out of Rodrigo Cortés), and happythankyoumoreplease won’t even be released until this spring.
This is why, when a specialty studio spends $3 million on a film at Sundance, it feels like a huge deal. That’s a big risk, as Lionsgate demonstrated in spending $3 - $4 million, plus a huge marketing commitment for Buried last year (it also demonstrates again why Kevin Smith’s Red State strategy may be a wise one because spending $20 million in marketing for a Sundance flick is like throwing money into a deep, deep well).
So, what about this year’s class of festival hits? Which ones will “break out”? Here are the ten best prospects at the box office, and my prediction for how much they’ll make (I will also include premieres, films that debuted at Sundance but had already been purchased). The sad thing is, if you take the predicted box-office grosses of all ten films and quadruple it, it will still probably come in less than what Transformers 3 will make.
10. Perfect Sense: A chef and a scientist fall in love as an epidemic begins to rob people of their sensory perceptions. Starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green. Box Office Prediction: $6 million
9. Martha Marcy May Marlene: Haunted by painful memories and increasing paranoia, a damaged woman struggles to re-assimilate with her family after fleeing an abusive cult. Starring Elizabeth Olsen and John Hawkes. Box Office Prediction: $9 million.
8. Margin Call: A thriller that revolves around the key people at a investment bank over a 24-hour period during the early stages of the financial crisis. Starring Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, and Zachary Quinton. Box Office Prediction: $11 million.
7. Like Crazy: A British college student falls for an American student, only to be separated from him when she’s banned from the U.S. after overstaying her visa. Starring Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones. Box Office Prediction: $13 million.
6. Win Win: Disheartened attorney Mike Flaherty (Giamatti), who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach, stumbles across a star athlete through some questionable business dealings while trying to support his family. Just as it looks like he will get a double payday, the boy’s mother shows up fresh from rehab and flat broke, threatening to derail everything. Starring Paul Giamatti, Amy Ryan, and Bobby Cannavale. Box-Office Prediction $14 million.
5. Homework: George, a lonely and fatalistic teen who’s made it all the way to his senior year without ever having done a real day of work, is befriended by Sally, a popular but complicated girl who recognizes in him a kindred spirit. Starring Emma Roberts and Freddie Highmore. Box Office Prediction $14 million.
4. Red State: Set in Middle America, a group of teens receive an online invitation for sex, though they soon encounter fundamentalists with a much more sinister agenda. Starring Melissa Leo, John Goodman, and Michael Parks. Box Office Prediction: $17 million.
3. Cedar Rapids: Tim Lippe has no idea what he’s in for when he’s sent to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to represent his company at an annual insurance convention, where he soon finds himself under the “guidance” of three convention veterans. Starring Ed Helms, John C. Reilly and Anne Heche. Box-Office Prediction: $18 million.
2. The Guard: An unorthodox Irish policeman with a confrontational personality is teamed up with an uptight FBI agent to investigate an international drug-smuggling ring. Starring Don Cheadle and Brendan Gleeson. Box Office Prediction: $22 million.
1. My Idiot Brother: A comedy centered on an idealist who barges into the lives of his three sisters, starring Paul Rudd, Zooey Deschanel, and Elizabeth Banks. Box Office Prediction: $35 million