The slacker comedy "Napoleon Dynamite" cost local filmmaker Jared Hess and his producers $400,000 to make, less than the catering bills for many major Hollywood studio productions.
Hess' "Little Hit That Could" made $44 million in its theatrical release and grossed many times that in its subsequent DVD and home-video releases, as well as other merchandizing.
And despite featuring a couple recognizable names in its cast (including Greg Kinnear and Steve Carell), the 2006 ensemble comedy "Little Miss Sunshine" cost a "mere" $8 million to make. It went on to make $60 million.
However, neither of those hits compares to the runaway success of "The Blair Witch Project." The $60,000 production scared up $141 million in business in the United States alone.
The connection between these three hits is that they debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004, 2006 and 1999, respectively. Sundance is where each of them was discovered.
Hess still credits the festival with jump-starting his career, calling it "the place to be discovered if you're a filmmaker, especially a first-timer."
But getting into Sundance doesn't automatically guarantee a film's success. And neither does making a major splash there.
"The Spitfire Grill" won the Audience Award for most popular dramatic feature at the 1996 festival. When it was released theatrically, the film barely made a ripple at the box office.
The same thing happened to the 1999 comedy "Happy, Texas." That movie was considered to be the big acquisition for Miramax Films at the festival that year, but its theatrical stay was brief, at best.
And recent Sundance horror selections "Wolf Creek" (2005) and "Fido" (2006) had hoped to re-create some of "Blair Witch Project's" box-office magic, or failing that, the performance of 2003's "28 Days Later." "Fido" was in and out of theaters so fast that many in the industry thought it went straight to video.
While that might concern studios that are looking to acquire films at Sundance, it doesn't faze festival director Geoffrey Gilmore. He insists that the festival exists as a forum for filmmakers, not as a market for studios looking for the "Next Big Thing."
"Our responsibility as programmers is to look at everything that's submitted and choose the best of it," Gilmore said. "We don't necessarily look for films that are going to be hits. Quality and commercial appeal aren't always the same thing."
Of course, "it is rewarding when one of our movies does cross over to mainstream audiences," he quickly added.
The 2008 festival is expected to be a "buyers market," since the Hollywood Writers Guild strike is continuing, studios are looking to stock up on already-produced films.
Buyers will have many of this year's 122 features to choose from, though some of Sundance's Premieres and Competition films do come to the festival with distribution deals already.
One of the free agents is "The Guitar," a drama featured in Sundance's Premieres section. It was directed by Amy Redford, the daughter of Sundance's founder, Robert Redford. But that familial relationship doesn't guarantee it will get a distribution deal or that it will be a box office success.
And anyway, Amy Redford says she's more excited to see how the film will play to Sundance audiences. "I'm filled with equal parts dread and anticipation. You pour all your blood, sweat and tears into a film and then hope it's not tears you're left with once the movie is shown."
Besides, to some filmmakers there are different degrees of success. In the early to mid-'90s, Sundance debuted Kevin Smith's "Clerks," Robert Rodriguez's "El Mariachi," Bryan Singer's "The Usual Suspects" and Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs."
None of these films even came close to Hollywood's supposed blockbuster benchmark $100 million. Yet, like Hess, the festival did announce their respective arrivals and led to bigger and better things.
Also, widely divergent production costs mean that theatrical "success" is relative. The 2007 Sundance comedy "Waitress" grossed $19 million in limited release. The 2004 documentary "Super Size Me" made $11.5 million. Since neither cost much more to make, they were hits.But last year's "Black Snake Moan" made $9 million, and since its production costs were $15 million, it was deemed a flop.
Hits and misses
While no other Sundance Film Festival films have made as much as "The Blair Witch Project," there have been many success stories. Here are eight Sundance "hits" (films grossing more than $30 million) and eight Sundance "flops" (those that made less than $20 million):
"The Blair Witch Project" (1999) $141 million
"Little Miss Sunshine" (2006) $60 million
"The Butterfly Effect" (2004) $58 million
"28 Days Later" (2003) $45 million
"Napoleon Dynamite" (2004) $44 million
"The Illusionist" (2006) $40 million
"In the Bedroom" (2001) $36 million
"The Deep End" (2001) $9 million
"Black Snake Moan" (2007) $9 million
"Narc" (2002) $10 million
"The Matador" (2005) $12 million
"Friends With Money" (2006) $13 million
"The Good Girl" (2002) $14 million
"Alpha Dog" (2006) $15 million