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Sundance glow no promise of box office sizzle

In the world of independent films, there is often a significant difference between perception and reality as far as success is concerned.

Every year, numerous new pictures generate some sort of buzz, build excitement around their directors and develop reputations within the industry, but these are often far out of line with how these films play to the general public.

One way of judging this misalignment is to look back at the pictures that have been featured at the Sundance Film Festival over the last couple of years.

The main competitive sections of Sundance, which takes place every January in Park City, Utah, are devoted exclusively to new American independent films. Out of hundreds of submissions, 17 or 18 narrative features are selected annually to be spotlighted, while 15 documentaries are normally chosen.

Each year, according to programming director Geoffrey Gilmore, it becomes more and more difficult to pick the finalists, and each year the scrutiny of press and Hollywood becomes increasingly intense, as new directors vie to become the year’s sensation.

Every year, only a handful of films is destined to make the leap to commercial prosperity, although about half of the fiction entries end up being released in some form. In this light, it is instructive to look back at the last two Sundance festivals, remember what was hot and what was not, and weigh their buzz against their B.O.

In 1992, the indisputable hot ticket was Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.” Stylish, violent, film-wise and hip, the movie was widely viewed as representing the debut of a major talent (only time will tell), and the former video store clerk emerged loaded with deals and possibilities.

Over the course of the year, it was interesting to see Tarantino turn up at festival after festival — Cannes, Avignon, Telluride, Toronto — lavished with praise for having made the hottest indie picture of the year, but without the film itself having faced a real paying audience.

Tarantino and Miramax milked the festival circuit for nearly an entire year before going public, and when they did, despite widespread critical support, the picture was gone within a few short weeks, confirming impressions at the very first Sundance screening that it was too violent and women were turned off by it.

In a way, of course, it doesn’t matter. The important thing for Tarantino, as for any debuting director, is making a name and get-ting the follow-up work, which he did. On a first effort, developing a cult following is decidedly enough.

Three other favorites in 1992, the grand prize-winning “In the Soup,” the audience award winner “The Waterdance” and “Zebrahead,” similarly generated enthusiastic reactions at Sundance and were considered to be good commercial bets, but failed to live up to box office hopes.

Although it didn’t win one of the top prizes, perhaps Allison Anders’ “Gas Food Lodging” came out of Sundance that year with the most gratifying combination of critical and commercial success.

To some extent, the jury is still out on the results from the 1993 festival, although it’s pretty clear that there will be very limited box office bonanzas eminating from the festival.

Of the two top prize winners, Victor Nunez’s “Ruby in Paradise” will be distributed by October Releasing in the fall, while Bryan Singer’s “Public Access” remains without a distrib, as does Tony Chan’s “Combination Platter.”

The film that arguably generated the loudest buzz, but won no prize, was Rob Weiss’ rambunctious suburban crime saga “Amongst Friends,” which New Line picked up and will release imminenty.

“Bodies, Rest & Motion,” which was relatively well liked at the festival, didn’t rouse the twentysomething crowd it needed for support, and “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” performed negligibly.

Rounding out the 8 of 17 narrative entries this year that have been picked up to date are “Inside Monkey Zetterland,””Paper Hearts” (now called “Cheatin’ Heart”) and “Boxing Helena.”

In the area of premieres and special events, quite a few of the 1992 entries were released, but only Nora Ephron’s “This is my Life” and Mira Nair’s “Mississippi Masala” did business to speak of. Of the other entries, Derek Jarman’s “Edward II” generated the most heat at Sundance, while “Storyville, “”Light Sleeper,””London Kills Me” and “Monster in a Box” came and went theatrically, and “Fool’s Fire” and “The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez” went directly to television.

Of the noncompeting docus, “Incident at Oglala” and “Clearcut” got varying degrees of release.

This year, similarly, most of the preems and special events have wound up in theaters, with Sally Potter’s “Orlando” having been tipped as a winner from its very first fest showing. Also having moved over from the 1993 crop are “Into the West,””American Heart,””The Last Days Of Chez Nous,””Twist,””Three of Hearts” and “House of Cards.” Still looking for distributors are “Silent Tongue” and “The Trial.”

Also outside the competition, “Black Harvest” and “Visions of Light: The Art of Cinematography” have gone into successful commercial release, while “Wild West” and “Crush” have been picked up. “Lovers on the Bridge,””On My Own” and a special fest fave, “Fear of a Black Hat,” have yet to find distribs.

It is also interesting to note indie successes that Sundance, for whatever reasons, did not select to show. Turned down in 1992 was Carl Franklin’s much-acclaimed “One False Move,” while the most celebrated miss of this year was Philip Haas’ “The Music of Chance,” which has impressed everywhere it has played , including Cannes, ever since.

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