1. Straight Out Of Brooklyn (1991)
It sometimes takes a year or two to figure out whether filmmakers—or even filmmaking trends—will become permanent part of the cinema landscape, or if they're just cashing in on the way to obscurity. When Matty Rich's debut film Straight Out Of Brooklyn took a Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 1991, the half-million-dollar production was part of several waves: mini-budgeted films paid for by credit cards and family donations, gritty urban films about impoverished young people contemplating a life of crime, and heavily hyped debuts by minority filmmakers. And while Straight Out Of Brooklyn made a respectable $2.7 million at the box office and drew positive (if hardly ecstatic) reviews, most cineastes and showbiz-followers in '91 likely expected more in the years to come than what was ultimately delivered. Rich followed Straight Out Of Brooklyn with the justly forgotten coming-of-age comedy The Inkwell, and has been silent ever since; meanwhile, the urban crime genre quickly flamed out. What once looked vital now looks dated, and even a little embarrassing.
2. In The Soup (1992)
In the year that Reservoir Dogs, El Mariachi, and Gas Food Lodging all introduced new indie darlings to Sundance audiences, the festival's Grand Jury Prize went to Alexandre Rockwell's second feature, an inside-baseball comedy starring Steve Buscemi as a screenwriter who gets involved with aging mobster Seymour Cassel in order to try to get his epic script made into a movie. Rockwell later joined Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, and Alison Anders for the ill-fated anthology film Four Rooms, but as a director, Rockwell hit his career peak in Park City. In The Soup barely scratched out $250,000 at the box office, and his subsequent career has been a lot like the sad-sack life of the character Buscemi played for him back in '92.
3. The Spitfire Grill (1996)
The Sundance film festival helped nurture the American independent-film movement as it blossomed in the early '90s, but by the middle of the decade, even the fest's stewards were questioning whether it had lost its sense of purpose. The reason? High-profile boondoggles like the record-breaking sale and subsequent middling box office for The Spitfire Grill, a rustic melodrama that won the Audience Award in 1996 and sold to Castle Rock for $10 million, only to gross about $12 million in its theatrical release that fall. Though The Spitfire Grill was independent in origin and financing—it was developed by a Catholic organization—its story of a small-town redemption wasn't especially daring, edgy, or even sophisticated. After a few more years of Sundance-bound indies aping the mainstream (albeit with smaller budgets and more ragged edges), and a few more years of independent film distributors manhandling or bypassing their old arthouse pals in order to cut deals with bigger chains, all parties involved learned some lessons about economies of scale.
4. The Myth Of Fingerprints (1997)
Anyone in search of a blueprint for the popular-at-festivals/ignored-at-the-multiplex indie drama should study Bart Freundlich's debut film The Myth of Fingerprints, a bland, predictable film built on the tense dinner conversations of placidly uncomfortable upper-middle-class Northeasterners. Freundlich's pseudo-sophisticated, presumably witty dialogue about sex, relationships, and the pleasures of childhood wowed audiences at Sundance, but it barely eked out a half-million dollars in box office in general release, probably because people don't like to pay to see disconnected characters air their petty gripes and then wander out of a precisely controlled frame, quickly forgotten.
5. Next Stop Wonderland (1998)
"I want to be in the Brad Anderson business," Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein declared after dropping $6 million on this forgettable Boston-based romantic comedy. Weinstein thought he would be adding another writer-director to a stable that included Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, and Jane Campion, but his investment in "the Brad Anderson business" was limited to just this one feature. Had the film not been the '98 festival's biggest success story, it might have overcome its inflated reputation through a reasonably charming script and ace performances by Hope Davis and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Davis, Hoffman, and Anderson all moved on to better things; Weinstein, on the other hand, has never stopped overspending.
6. Happy, Texas (1999)
The producers of this quirky nothing of a comedy turned out to be better businessmen than filmmakers, prying open the wallets of suitors from every studio boutique in the business. In the end, the biggest piranha, Miramax's Harvey Weinstein, won the feeding frenzy for $10 million, but after the buzzkill of extensive recutting and tepid reviews, Happy, Texas recouped just over a tenth of that price. The film, about escaped cons posing as gay organizers of a beauty pageant, seemed like a certain crossover hit at the time, but Miramax discovered that there were sometimes limits to shameless commercial calculation.
7. The Tao Of Steve (2000)
Sometimes a movie falls betwixt and between. One year, audiences get excited by the slacker philosophizing of Clerks; a decade later, they celebrate the arch Napoleon Dynamite. But in 2000? The Tao Of Steve won favor with Sundance crowds, who awarded a special jury prize to star Donal Logue for his performance as an easygoing dude with a quirky approach to romance. Yet when the movie entered general release, both the character and the story seemed a little paltry, and The Tao Of Steve failed to become a permanent part of the pop-culture landscape. No one's selling Tao Of Steve T-shirts, that's for sure.
8. Raw Deal: A Question Of Consent (2001)
Though the 2001 festival would turn out such big-ticket items as Donnie Darko, In The Bedroom, and Memento, no film scored more headlines—including a front-page New York Post story—than this exploitative documentary about a possible rape caught on tape. Picked up for six figures by the now-defunct Artisan Entertainment, the film got so tangled up in lawsuits between the distributor and the filmmakers that it never saw a theatrical release, which probably would have resulted in a fresh round of lawsuits anyway. Those unfortunate few who saw the film got to witness graphic home-video footage of a 27-year-old stripper getting raped (or not) at a Delta Chi frat party, all framed with the sensitivity and class of an Inside Edition segment.
9. Tadpole (2002)
With this terminally slight coming-of-age story, shot on video in 14 days, writer-director Gary Winick helped launch his erstwhile InDigEnt label, a DIY experiment that was essentially an American answer to Denmark's Dogme 95. All hail the digital revolution—exactly like the films you're used to seeing, only much shittier-looking! InDigEnt later put its stamp on many other unwatchable independent films—Pieces Of April, anyone?—but none got as much unwarranted attention at the festival. For the $5 million purchase price, there weren't enough cigars in Cuba for the spendthrifts at Miramax to light up with their wasted bills.
10. Hounddog (2006)
Sight unseen, writer-director Deborah Kampmeier's overripe Southern gothic was easily the most talked-about film going into the 2006 festival, thanks to the trumped-up controversy over a Dakota Fanning rape scene. Then people elbowed their way into the first press screening and the film was never heard from again. Ironically, few critics took issue with the rape, which Kampmeier handled mostly through an effective use of offscreen space; it's the movie itself that turned them off and reportedly evoked gales of unintended laughter. Currently, Hounddog remains undistributed. Any takers?