Festival's pic plaudits don't always pay off

PARK CITY — There was a bouncy mood here as tyro filmmakers basked in critical praise and seven-figure deals for their films. To these hopefuls, as well as to optimistic acquisitions execs, the 20th-anni Sundance Film Festival (Jan. 15-Jan. 25) was a rousing success.

But late last week, fest offered a midnight screening of a new doc that could almost serve as a warning: Mark Brian Smith & Tony Montana’s “Overnight,” which follows the seven-year odyssey of bartender-turned-screenwriter Troy Duffy.

Duffy’s cautionary tale began in 1997 with a Miramax deal for him to direct his own script, “The Boondock Saints.” He also would provide songs for its soundtrack and buy the bar where he worked (funded by Miramax).

In the end, Elie Samaha’s Franchise Pictures produced the film, which earned $30,000 at the domestic box office. The filmmaker never got the bar, never recorded the songs — and never got another movie deal.

Duffy, who calls the film “an 80-minute smear campaign,” nonetheless admits that the cameras caught indefensible behavior.

“It was perhaps a situation of too much too fast,” the 32-year-old filmmaker told Variety. “If I had to do it over again, I’d do everything differently.”

In the upbeat atmosphere of Park City, the film was a sobering reminder that there’s not necessarily a direct connection between Sundance and real life. For every Kevin Smith and “Clerks,” there’s an Anthony Drazan and “Zebrahead.”

There are dozens of other examples over the past 20 years of Sundance award-winning films that never find distribution and hot new directors who never make another film.

Matty Rich won a special jury recognition for “Straight Out of Brooklyn” in 1991; his next film, Touchstone’s’ “The Inkwell,” was a flop and he hasn’t directed another feature.

In 1993, Leslie Harris won a special jury award for “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.,” her first feature — and, to date, her last. Lee David Zlotoff’s 1996 “Spitfire Grill” nabbed a $10 million deal from Miramax. Zlotoff has not made a film since then (though he has occasionally helmed TV episodes).

Marc Levin’s poetry-slam drama “Slam” won the grand jury prize in 1998 and a $2.5 million distribution pact from Trimark, only to barely cross the $1 million mark at the box office.

Eric Mendelsohn won the director’s award for “Judy Berlin” in 1999 and hasn’t been heard from since.

The air is awfully thin in Park City, and acquisitions execs over the years have oft experienced buyer’s remorse. What seems fresh and heartwarming here can suddenly become tepid and sentimental inside oxygen-rich multiplexes. Many movies left Sundance with great buzz and even greater pricetags, only to find that neither had much bearing on B.O. performance.

Consider Miramax’s “Tadpole” ($5 million), “The Castle” ($6 million), “Happy Texas” ($10 million) and “Next Stop Wonderland” ($6 million).

The minimajor said the 1998 “Wonderland” deal was a bargain, since it included first-look and last matching rights to an undisclosed number of Brad Anderson’s future projects. Anderson has made three films since and Miramax handled none of them.

Other Sundance buzz pics have been less costly, but their disappointing perfs were enough to make many wonder what the buyers were thinking.

These include Trimark’s “Dead Man’s Curve,” Miramax’s “Jerry and Tom” (which never received a theatrical release) and Columbia’s “The Last Supper” (which starred Cameron Diaz as a homicidal grad student).

Sometimes the discrepancy in popularity works in the other direction: There are Sundance films that receive a collective shrug from the parka-clad masses, only to find B.O. success after the fest.

The polite reception following Fox Searchlight’s 1997 premiere of “The Full Monty” in the World Cinema section gave no indication of the quarter-billion global juggernaut to come.

Joe Carnahan wasn’t exactly a fest darling with the 1998 Midnight selection “Blood Guts Bullets & Octane,” but the film brought him an agent, the critically acclaimed followup “Narc” and a slate of projects, including being attached to direct Tom Cruise in “Mission: Impossible 3.”

Similarly, the 2001 Midnight pic “Super Troopers” from Jay Chandrasekhar was virtually ignored.

Fox Searchlight picked up world rights for $3 million, released it a year later on 1,200 screens in North America and watched it gross more than $23 million worldwide, with a healthy backend for Chandrasekhar and his Broken Lizard comedy troupe. Searchlight produced and will release Broken Lizard’s next film, “Club Dread,” Feb. 27.

Even success at Sundance and at the multiplex is no guarantee of a career.

Consider Jennie Livingston’s 1990 drag queen doc, “Paris Is Burning,” which tied for the grand jury prize and was a $3.8 million-grossing crowd-pleaser in its theatrical release later that year. She has not made another film since.

This year’s crop featured plenty of hopefuls who all won praise and are likely to sell their films, if they haven’t already. There’s a lot of reasons to be optimistic about their future.

They include Zach Braff’s “Garden State,” Jared Hess’ “Napoleon Dynamite,” Joshua Marston’s “Maria Full of Grace,” John Curran’s “We Don’t Live Here Anymore,” Nicole Kassell’s “The Woodsman,” Jacob Aaron Estes’ “Mean Creek,” Chris Kentis’ “Open Water,” Ian Iqbal Rashid’s “Touch of Pink” and Ryan Shiraki’s “Home of Phobia.”

And sometimes success comes in unexpected ways.

Vin Diesel wrote, directed, produced and starred in his feature debut, “Strays.” The film bowed in the 1997 dramatic competition and didn’t gain much traction for Diesel’s directing career. However, Diesel is one Sundance filmmaker who might not have noticed that his film didn’t get a theatrical release.

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