Considering all the Sundance-related signage that greets arrivers at the Salt Lake City airport, it’s a wonder there isn’t a banner at baggage claim bearing the most important message for festival attendees: Beware Buzz.
Every year, a handful of titles enter the festival with that extra variable that defies definition, but which guarantees at least one packed screening and a passel of press coverage before the jig is up. There have been occasions where that first, hotly anticipated Sundance screening went as well as anyone could have hoped—the premiere of Little Miss Sunshine in 2006 comes to mind—but much more often film festival buzz is self-defeating. Not only does it create expectations that are impossible to fulfill, but when must-see films are picked as must-sees (whether by journalists, publicists, or festival programmers), it robs the serious movie lover of the element of surprise that makes a film festival worthwhile.
So with Sundance 2009 now finally a thing of the past, here’s a look at three films that failed to live up to the pre-fest buzz, three films that triumphed in spite of having none, and one award-winning title that perfectly performed to great expectations.
An Education There was certainly a modicum of interest in this Lone Scherfig-directed, Nick Hornby-scripted '60s period romance going into the festival, but its ultimate triumph—including winning the Audience Award, landing one of the biggest distribution deals of the week—is a classic example of Sundance buzz feeding itself. The Festival booked the film’s premiere screening at The Egyptian, one of Park City’s smallest venues. Buyers and certain other industry types are allowed to walk into Sundance screenings without waiting in line, and somehow the theater staff kept letting those VIP badgeholders in without taking note of the current headcount inside. I ended up as one of at least 30 ticketholders standing in the theater’s aisle for 20 minutes, with no seats in sight. News of this over-packed house spread around town like wildfire, and by that evening An Education had become Sundance 2009’s ultimate must-see. By the time I finally got a seat at the screening a few days later, the film print had been altered to open with the logo of its new US distributor, Sony Classics.
Humpday Lynn Shelton’s micro-budget dude-com went into Sundance as the ultimate underdog: no stars, no studio financing or distribution, and a plot involving two straight guys having sex with each other that had at least one movie blog’s commenters arguing about whether it was homophobic to read the synopsis and say, “no thanks.” But Humpday won over critics, buyers and audiences the old-fashioned way—by being really, really entertaining. The Sundance jury was impressed, too, creating a Special Jury Prize for the Spirit of Independence specifically for the film. In an echo of constant talk at this year’s Festival on nontraditional release strategies, Magnolia will release Humpday in late summer on video-on-demand first; a month later, it’ll open in theaters.
Push: Based on the novel by Sapphire The ultimate out-of-nowhere success story of Sundance 2009, Lee Daniels’ gritty drama about an obese, pregnant teen (Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe) and her mentally ill mom (Mo’Nique—she of Phat Girlz—in an already Oscar-buzzed performance) received a standing ovation at its first screening. It also on to win three jury prizes—the US Dramatic Grand Jury Prize, the Audience Award, and a special acting mention for Mo’Nique. Despite whispers that there’s no logical market for Push (more than one of its detractors has claimed that it’s a film about poor black people made for rich white people), rumors are afloat that the movie will soon sell to Lionsgate or The Weinstein Company.
Brief Interviews with Hideous Men The tragic timing of author David Foster Wallace’s suicide put a spotlight on this first-ever cinematic adaptation of his writing. But John Krasinki’s ( The Office) directorial debut fell flat at the fest. Variety’s Todd McCarthy even questioned its very existence as a work of film, brandishing Interviews as “a very academic movie about academics that belongs in academia, not movie theaters.” Chatter about the film’s distribution prospects was dialed way down shortly after its press and industry screening.
The Informers Gregor Jordan’s adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ novella (and the first Ellis adaptation co-scripted by the author himself) coasted into the Festival on a wave of buzz stoked by a New York Times profile and the promised presence of so-hot-right-now co-star Mickey Rourke. And then we saw the film. At Salon, Andrew O’Hehir declared it Sundance 2009’s “designated disaster, a much-anticipated flick that fails on many levels at once.” The Informers may have been remembered as Sundance 2009’s biggest punchline … well, until film critic John Anderson punched producer’s rep/ Big Lebowski inspiration Jeff Dowd over breakfast.
Paper Heart By no means a disaster on the order of The Informers, Heart still failed to live up to the expectations sparked long before the fest by a Hollywood Reporter piece insisting that the romantic comedy narrative/documentary hybrid would be “the one” to watch at the festival. Ironically, that story also noted that the filmmaker’s sales agents were trying to keep the film a secret in order to not create expectations that the movie couldn’t fulfill. No such luck: By Saturday night’s award ceremony, after Heart had attracted mixed reviews and seemed to be off the docket for acquisitions buzz, an audible gasp spread through the crowd when the film won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting award. As one rival sales agent quipped of the improv-documentary, “Doesn’t a movie need to have a screenplay in order to win a screenplay award?”
THE ONE THAT MET THE BUZZ HEAD ON
We Live In Public Ondi Timoner’s portrait of ten years in the life of web video pioneer Josh Harris was one of the most hotly anticipated titles of the fest––at least, among journalists, bloggers and anyone with vague memories of the dot-com boom and Harris’ dominance of the Silicon Alley social scene. By the end of the fest, Public had won over nearly all comers, and on Saturday night, Timoner became the first documentary director ever to win Grand Jury prizes for two consecutive Sundance entries (her last Sundance film was 2004’s Dig!). The film remains without theatrical distribution, which is maybe fitting— We Live in Public’s natural audience is nowhere if not online.