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Sunday, January 20, 2013
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The History Of Sundance Films’ Pursuit Of The Oscars

By Joey Magidson
Film Contributor


Greetings from Park City, everyone! As I’m writing this piece, I’m in Utah attending the Sundance Film Festival. So far, it has been pretty cool (if a bit overwhelming at times), especially for a first-timer like myself. Being here inspired me to try and tie in the festival to the Oscars, as I’m prone to do with just about everything that I can. I’ve found that I’m on the lookout for what could move from this year’s festival lineup to the next awards season.

When I wrote about which film festivals influence the Oscar race a few weeks ago (found here), I mentioned how Sundance wasn’t the prime destination for awards hopefuls but still functioned as an essential launching pad. That was certainly true this year, and it will remain the case going forward.

It takes a certain kind of movie to make it from Park City to Hollywood for the Academy Awards. Not only do Sundance debuts have to deal with coming on the scene in January (at least a month before the previous Oscar ceremony even airs), but they also have to be picked up by a distributor with a solid game plan, released theatrically at a prime date and connect with both the independent, art house crowd and a broader audience of movie lovers.

Many times, films have started off in Utah with high honors, only to be shut out of the awards season. Sundance bestowed awards on potential players each year, but they never came close to Oscar. Just look at the likes of Girlfight, Primer, The Wackness and Like Crazy for evidence of that. More years than not, the top prizes go to films that will never again come close to citations of ilk.

Sundance has had an interesting history with the Oscars overall. While the festival had been around in the 1970s under a different name, it officially became “Sundance” in 1984-1985. That was the time that the first Sundance film went on to score an Oscar nomination. It was the documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, and it wound up winning the Academy Award.

Throughout the nearly 30 years that Sundance has been around in its current form, documentaries have historically done well. Docs such as American Dream, Hoop Dreams, When We Were Kings, Capturing the Friedmans, Super Size Me, Murderball, Iraq in Fragments, No End in Sight, Trouble the Water, Burma VJ, Man on Wire, Restrepo, GasLand and Hell and Back Again have all seen success, sometimes even winning the Oscar. No other type of film has done nearly as well in moving from Park City to the Academy.

The big narrative flicks to make hay with Oscar tend to be the indie breakthroughs of a given year. While the first was Stand and Deliver, the most notable early one is of course Sex, Lies, and Videotape. That film really put Sundance on the map. Without that success story, it’s possible that none of the others that came after it would have ever been given their shot. The movie made Park City a viable destination for indie Oscar hopefuls.

Also jumping from Sundance to the Academy Awards were films such as You Can Count On Me, In the Bedroom, Memento, Thirteen, Pieces of April, American Splendor, The Cooler, Maria Full of Grace, Hustle & Flow, Junebug, The Squid and the Whale, Half Nelson, Once, An Education, Precious, Animal Kingdom, Blue Valentine and Winter’s Bone. Of those movies, the most nominated was Precious with six nominations (winning two of those).

Best Picture is a hard category for Sundance movies to break into (though Best Director is even harder for them), but you’re more likely to see acting citations or screenplay nods for the successes from Park City. Indie movies always have a tougher time to begin with, so the long run up to the Oscars from this festival make them longer shots year in and year out.

Some notable misses with the Academy that came from Sundance include the aforementioned prize winners, but also films such as Brick, The Brothers McMullen, Clerks, Garden State, Grace is Gone, Heathers, Humpday, L.I.E., Martha Marcy May Marlene, Reservoir Dogs, Slacker, Smashed and Take Shelter. Many of these were tipped for potential Oscar love but never wound up receiving it, while others have just wound up as important pieces of cinematic history. It’s rather surprising that none of those movies scored anything, but that’s the nature of the Sundance beast.

The current crop of Oscar nominees contains a few Sundance alumni, notably Beasts of the Southern Wild (four noms) and The Sessions (a single nod), while Arbitrage came close but ultimately fell short. Not surprisingly, documentaries did well, too, with 80 percent of the nominees coming from Sundance (5 Broken Cameras, Chasing Ice, How to Survive a Plague and The Imposter) this year.

As you can see, it’s a challenge for Sundance flicks to become Oscar flicks, but it does happen. It doesn’t occur with the regularity of festivals such as Cannes or Toronto, but a certain kind of movie can do it, and it’s happened more years than not. I’m currently on the lookout for what can do it in 2013, with the early praise surrounding the likes of Don Jon’s Addiction, Kill Your Darlings, and The Spectacular Now. Mud is another film that can potentially tickle the Academy’s fancy, while Before Midnight is about to unspool, but that kind of talk is still a long ways off.

I’ll be sure to keep a close eye on what next year’s awards ceremony could feature from the mountains of Utah, and I’m certainly not alone (everyone is essentially looking for the next Beasts of the Southern Wild), but for now it’s all a guessing game. It’s never easy, and lots of worthwhile films have come up short, but if the above Sundance alumni could crack the Oscar lineup, it’s always possible for some new ones to do the same as well.

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  • You forgot Little Miss Sunshine.

  • Jessie

    Excited to see what comes out of this year!