5 Sundance Movies That Made it Big

Friday, November 18 by Marina Szaven

Independent films often suffer from small budgets and even smaller box office receipts, but these 5 Sundance movies that made it big prove that sometimes the little guys (or gals) do win. The annual Sundance Film Festival had more luck discovering raw talent like the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino than mainstream Hollywood. Every January film distributors head to snowy Park City, Utah, to look for the low-budget movie with the potential for cultural prestige or popular success. These 5 Sundance movies have proven the maxim that size does not matter. 

"The Blair Witch Project" This spooky crowd-pleaser may not have won any awards at Sundance, but the festival gave the movie the necessary attention to make a sale to Artisan Entertainment. This low-budget horror reportedly cost a paltry $60,000 for writer/director Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez. Their simple but effective premise about three students investigating a local legend in the Maryland woods eventually raked up $248 million in worldwide theatrical sales.

"Little Miss Sunshine" Take a dysfuntional family, put them on the road, keep to a relatively miniscule budget of $8 million and take home an Oscar and over $100 million in box office sales. The husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris used that winning formula to make one of the biggest successes in Sundance history. Their dark and funny comedy about American aspiration benefited from pitch perfect performances by Toni Collette, Steve Carrell and Greg Kinnear, as well as an Oscar-winning turn by Alan Arkin as a heroin-using grandfather. This indie gem was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Feature.

"Precious" This story of a a sexually abused and obese teen mom in Harlem did not seem to have a box office-winning premise. Even more daunting, the biggest names on the cast list were singers Mariah Carey and Lenny Kravitz in small, supporting roles and eventual executive producers Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry did not become involved until months later at the Toronto Film Festival. After winning Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize and its Audience Award, this $10 million production went on to reap over $60 million in world box office, as well as two Academy Awards.

"Once" This movie won the World Cinema Audience Award at Sundance and eventually won an Academy Award for Original Song (“Falling Slowly”). This humble little picture was a simple love story with no sex, no stars and not even a walk-into-the-sunset ending. Nonetheless, the movie about an unnamed Dublin street guitar player collaborating with an unnamed Czech woman on some simple music eventually earned over $20 million at the worldwide box office.

"Sex, Lies and Videotape" won the first Sundance Audience Award and Steven Soderbergh’s little relationship drama became the first big hit of the burgeoning festival. Previous Sundance notables “Blood Simple” and “Stranger Than Paradise” gained some traction in the art house, but “Sex, Lies and Videotape” spawned the first full-fledged bidding war. The buzz not only helped propel the film to over $25 million in US box office but gave it a healthy momentum for its eventual Cannes Palme D'Or trophy.