Like most film festivals, Sundance has a competition section. A lot of festival-goers are also sports enthusiasts, and this gives them something to gamble on. Winning the Grand Jury Prize is a figurative feather in a movie’s metaphorical hat, sure to be mentioned in the film’s marketing and in articles wondering why it didn’t make more money. But how reliable are these awards? Do they hold up over time?
Here’s how it works. There are five main juries at Sundance, each with five members (different people every year), each judging one category: U.S. dramatic, U.S. documentary, world dramatic, world documentary, and shorts. The films in Sundance’s other sections — Premieres, Next, Midnight, Spotlight — aren’t in the running*. So the “Grand Jury Prize” doesn’t mean the top film at the festival overall, it means the best of the 16 movies in the U.S. Dramatic competition.
This year’s U.S. dramatic jury consists of cinematographer Rachel Morrison, actors Jada Pinkett Smith, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg, and actor/director Joe Swanberg. We can’t judge their judgment yet, so let’s do the next best thing and second-guess their predecessors over the last 10 years. Which films have won, and how did it work out for them?
2017: I Don‘t Feel at Home in This World Anymore
Melanie Lynskey stars as a put-upon Everywoman whose disappointment in humanity comes to a head when her home is burglarized.
Metacritic score: 75.
Notable also-rans: Ingrid Goes West, Crown Heights, Band Aid, Brigsby Bear, Beach Rats.
Sale price: N/A.
Theatrical gross: N/A. Writer-director Macon Blair pitched the film directly to Netflix (at Sundance, as it happens, a year earlier), and Netflix financed and distributed it. It was the first time a pre-sold film intended only for Internet release (not theatrical) won the Grand Jury Prize. It probably will not be the last.
Kudos: Since it wasn’t released theatrically, the film wasn’t eligible for a lot of awards, including the Oscars. Melanie Lynskey was nominated for a Gotham Independent Film Award, but she lost to Saoirse Ronan, as one must.
2016: The Birth of a Nation
An account of the Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, with writer-director Nate Parker in the lead.
Metacritic score: 69 (nice).
Notable also-rans: Swiss Army Man, Southside with You, Other People.
Sale price: A record-setting $17.5 million, by Fox Searchlight.
Theatrical gross: $15.9 million. Fox was optimistic to have paid $17.5 in the first place. The only Sundance premieres this century that have gone on to make more than that at the box office — your Little Miss Sunshines, your Garden States, your Boyhoods — have had marketable stars or directors.
Kudos: The film and/or Nate Parker were nominated for more than a dozen awards, but it didn’t win any and was totally ignored by the Oscars, Golden Globes, and Independent Spirits.
And then? The box office and awards prospects were probably hurt by an offscreen scandal: Parker and his co-writer, Jean McGianni Celestin, had been accused of rape in 1999. Parker was acquitted and Celestin’s conviction was overturned on appeal, but the accuser committed suicide in 2012, and the whole thing was dredged up again when Birth of a Nation stormed Sundance. Parker hasn’t announced any new projects.
2015: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
High school boy befriends girl with cancer. Hilarity ensues!
Metacritic score: 74.
Notable also-rans: The D Train, Dope, The Witch.
Sale price: $12 million, by Fox Searchlight.
Theatrical gross: $6.8 million.
Kudos: It won awards at several more film festivals after Sundance, but nothing after its general release other than a nod from the Casting Society of America.
And then? Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s next film, The Current War — about the battle between Thomas Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Westinghouse (Michael Shannon) — premiered at Toronto in September, where it was purchased by, uh, The Weinstein Company. So who knows what will happen to it now.
A gifted young jazz drummer (Miles Teller) encounters a tough teacher (J.K. Simmons) at a Juilliard-like school.
Metacritic score: 88.
Notable also-rans: Dear White People, Infinitely Polar Bear, The Skeleton Twins.
Sale price: Somewhere between $2.5 and $3 million, by Sony Pictures Classics.
Theatrical gross: $13 million domestic. It made another $35.9 million internationally, but those rights were bought by another wing of Sony in a separate deal. It’s all very complicated.
Kudos: How about three Academy Awards? Editing, sound mixing, and J.K. Simmons for Best Supporting Actor, plus nominations for Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay. The film and/or Simmons, writer-director Damian Chazelle, and editor Tom Cross won numerous other awards that season, with Simmons in particular earning at least 20 prizes from critics groups, industry guilds, and whatever the Golden Globes are.
And then? Chazelle made La La Land next, can basically do anything he wants.
2013: Fruitvale (retitled Fruitvale Station)
Michael B. Jordan stars in the true story of a young Bay Area man killed by police early on Jan. 1, 2008.
Metacritic score: 85.
Notable also-rans: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Upstream Color, The Spectacular Now.
Sale price: About $2 million, by The Weinstein Company.
Theatrical gross: $16.1 million.
Kudos: A few dozen wins from critics groups and at other film festivals, with Coogler in particular being noted as a breakout director.
And then? Coogler’s next gig was Creed, which catapulted him to even greater acclaim and the upcoming Black Panther. Michael B. Jordan is his good luck charm, or possibly vice versa.
2012: Beasts of the Southern Wild
Magical-realist drama set in a flood-prone part of Louisiana, focused on a young girl who becomes separated from her father.
Metacritic score: 86.
Notable also-rans: The Surrogate (retitled The Sessions), Safety Not Guaranteed, Simon Killer, Keep the Lights On.
Sale price: Less than $1 million, by Fox Searchlight.
Theatrical gross: $12.8 million.
Kudos: Nominated for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Actress at the Academy Awards, with Quvenzhané Wallis the youngest Best Actress nominee in history. Beasts didn’t win any Oscars, but it won more than 60 awards from critics groups, guilds, and other film festivals, including Cannes.
And then? Director Benh Zeitlin, whose only prior credits were three short films, hasn’t made anything since Beasts. Wallis went on to star in the Annie remake and provide a voice in Trolls.
2011: Like Crazy
Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones experience young love and all of its attendant ups, downs, and in-betweens.
Metacritic score: 68 (the lowest of the bunch).
Notable also-rans: Another Earth, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter.
Sale price: $4 million, by Paramount Vantage
Theatrical gross: $3.4 million.
Kudos: Felicity Jones won “best breakthrough performer” (or words to that effect) from the National Board of Review, Empire Awards, and Gotham Awards. (She got a special citation from the Sundance jury, too.)
And then? Director Drake Doremus has made three more films since then — Breathe In, Equals, and Newness — with a fourth (Zoe) due this year, but none have made a splash.
2010: Winter’s Bone
Jennifer Lawrence plays a steely teen in the meth-addled Ozarks who must find her deadbeat father to prevent the family’s house from being taken.
Metacritic score: 90 (the highest of the bunch).
Notable also-rans: happythankyoumoreplease, Blue Valentine, Howl.
Sale price: Somewhere around $500,000 or less, by Roadside Attractions.
Theatrical gross: $6.5 million.
Kudos: Nominated for four Oscars — Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor (John Hawkes). It didn’t win any, but it won a couple dozen other awards at other festivals and from critics’ groups.
And then? It was The Hunger Games, a year later, that rocketed J-Law to stardom, but her Oscar nomination here got her onto the launchpad. Director Debra Granik’s latest project, Leave No Trace, premieres at Sundance this week (not in competition).
2009: Push (retitled Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire because there was another Push being released that year)
An obese, illiterate teen (Gabourey Sidibe) tries to escape her abusive home life. Hilarity ensues!
Metacritic score: 79.
Notable also-rans: Big Fan, Humpday, Sin Nombre.
Sale price: $5.5 million, by Lionsgate.
Theatrical gross: $47.6 million.
Kudos: Oscar wins for Best Adapted Screenplay (Geoffrey Fletcher) and Best Supporting Actress (Mo’Nique), plus nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director (Lee Daniels), and Best Editing (Joe Klotz). Won best picture (or its equivalent) at the Independent Spirit Awards, NAACP Image Awards, and the African-American Film Critics Association. Numerous other awards and nominations from critics’ groups.
And then? Daniels went on to make The Paperboy and The Butler, both roundly mocked for being extravagantly dramatic. He’s also co-creator of TV’s Empire, on which Sidibe is a regular.
2008: Frozen River
Melissa Leo and Misty Upham play economically desperate women in upstate New York who start smuggling illegal immigrants from Canada into the U.S. across the title character, the St. Lawrence.
Metacritic score: 82.
Notable also-rans: The Wackness (which won the Audience Award), Choke, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Sugar, Sunshine Cleaning.
Sale price: $500,000.
Theatrical gross: $2.5 million domestic; $2.9 million foreign.
Kudos: Two Oscar nominations — Melissa Leo for Best Actress, and Courtney Hunt for Best Original Screenplay. Leo was nominated for at least 16 other awards, winning several of them; Upham was nominated for a few and won Best Supporting Actress at the American Indian Film Festival; Hunt won Best Directorial Debut from the National Board of Review; and the film itself won Best Picture prizes from the New York Film Critics Circle and the Gotham Independent Film Awards.
And then? Director Hunt’s next film, courtroom drama The Whole Truth, was a mess (Keanu Reeves replaced Daniel Craig as star at the last minute). Melissa Leo had been in about 30 films before this one and has been in another 30 since then, will be in at least 30 more before she’s done.
*Except this year Sundance has added RuPaul as the lone juror for the Next category, for reasons that I’m sure will make sense someday.
Eric D. Snider judges people and things in Portland.