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Has The Kids Are All Right Helped Break the ‘Sundance Curse’?

Much has been made of the fact that many promising Sundance films, rapturously received at the festival, have gone on to tank in theaters. But now that Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right has managed a rather stunning $500,000-plus opening weekend (on just four screens!) — and films like Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone have bucked the trend — it's now time to ask the question: Has the so-called Sundance Curse has finally been broken?

There’s no widespread agreement on what exactly constitutes the “curse,” but the most common understanding has it that the movies that have sold for lots of money haven’t gone on to make enough at the box office. Of course, there have been enough crossover hits — like Little Miss Sunshine (bought for $10.5 million, grossed almost $60 million), Napoleon Dynamite (bought for $3 million, grossed almost $45 million), and Precious (bought for $5.5 million, grossed $47.5 million) — to keep the studios gambling. But for every one of those, there are many more films that got picked up for a lot of money and barely made a dent, like Hamlet 2 (bought for $10 million, didn’t quite gross $5 million) or Son of Rambow (bought for $8 million, grossed about $1.7 million).

The wounds of the past, plus anxiety about the current health of the indie film market, meant that even when The Kids Are All Right had its triumphant premiere at this year’s festival, there was some doubt about whether audiences would come see it. Focus Features eventually won the bidding, shelling out a modest $4.8 million for domestic rights, as well as the UK, South Africa, and Germany. Its staggering debut is a good start, and with stellar reviews, star power, and topicality, there’s a good chance it will have significant legs. “It looks to be in a terrific position to become one of the top-performing indie titles of the summer,” says Gitesh Pandya of the Box Office Guru. “If the Academy remembers it at nomination time, then there is tremendous upside here. “

But the most famous feeding frenzy in Sundance history happened three years ago. “It was the all-time most money-losing festival,” says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures. “There was a lot of incipient money in the indie world, and people went nuts. You had Grace Is Gone going for $4 million, Son of Rambow going for $8 million, Clubland [which was released as Introducing the Dwights] for over $4 million, Joshua over $3 million. Even My Kid Could Paint That, a documentary, went for $1.8 million and completely tanked. We bought The Signal for a couple of million and got hurt. Pretty much everybody lost money.” (The biggest disaster of that bunch was Grace Is Gone, which won the festival’s Audience Award and the Waldo Salt screenwriting award, sold to the Weinstein Company for $4 million, and made just a little over $50,000; the merely unsuccessful Joshua, by comparison, made $480,000.)

If The Kids Are All Right was the acknowledged audience-friendly breakout of this year’s festival (à la Little Miss Sunshine or Precious), Winter’s Bone was probably the consensus critical favorite, in the tradition of other smaller, more challenging films like 2004’s Primer (which grossed around $500,000 after going to ThinkFilm for an undisclosed sum) or 2008’s Ballast, which director Lance Weiler self-distributed and grossed less than $78,000. And it, too, has done rather well for itself: Acquired for low- to mid-six figures by Roadside Attractions, it has already made more than $2.5 million, and has now expanded to 106 screens, riding excellent reviews and a breakthrough performance by its young lead, Jennifer Lawrence. Compare that to Granik’s previous film, the similarly well-reviewed addiction drama Down to the Bone, which premiered at Sundance 2004, won awards for direction and a then-unknown Vera Farmiga’s lead performance, and didn’t even get to $20,000.

If The Kids Are All Right was the acknowledged audience-friendly breakout of this year’s festival (à la Little Miss Sunshine or Precious), Winter’s Bone was probably the consensus critical favorite, in the tradition of other smaller, more challenging films like 2004’s Primer (which grossed around $500,000 after going to ThinkFilm for an undisclosed sum) or 2008’s Ballast, which director Lance Weiler self-distributed and grossed less than $78,000. And it, too, has done rather well for itself: Acquired for low- to mid-six figures by Roadside Attractions, it has already made more than $2.5 million, and has now expanded to 106 screens, riding excellent reviews and a breakthrough performance by its young lead, Jennifer Lawrence. Compare that to Granik’s previous film, the similarly well-reviewed addiction drama Down to the Bone, which premiered at Sundance 2004, won awards for direction and a then-unknown Vera Farmiga’s lead performance, and didn’t even get to $20,000.

The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone were probably the best-loved films at this year’s festival. So it’s encouraging that other Sundance titles currently in limited release, such as Fox Searchlight’s Cyrus, Magnolia’s I Am Love, and IFC’s Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, are also doing well.

What’s behind all the positive news? In the wake of the financial crisis and the implosion of a number of studio specialty divisions, distributors are paying a lot less money for films. Bowles also thinks that marketing costs have gotten a lot more realistic: “There used to be this mentality that ‘If we spend a lot of money, they will come.’ That was absolutely disastrous for this side of the business.” He cites the tendency of some companies to spend millions of dollars marketing films right out of the gate, as opposed to carefully building word-of-mouth in limited release. “Things are now on a much more realistic scale. We launch our films for under a million, and we’ll go over that if they start to do really well. Last year, we spent a little over a million in P&A [prints and advertising] for Food, Inc. and we grossed $4 million. We’ve been returning money to producers.”

Of course, a lot can change as awards season approaches. A film like The Kids Are All Right will probably have to put together a hefty Oscar campaign, since Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, and Mark Ruffalo are all potential awards contenders, as well as with Cholodenko herself. 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry was bought for $5 million by Fox Searchlight and grossed a little over $11 million on its way to making a star (and Oscar winner) of Hilary Swank. But it also wound up with a P&A price tag of nearly $5,000,000, which means that it probably just about broke even, if that. In the meantime, though, it appears that the Sundance class of 2010 is off to a promising start.

Photo: Antidote International Films, Inc.