This story first appeared in the Jan. 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When Robert Redford took over Sundance in 1984, it was a sleepy little get-together of movie buffs called the U.S. Film Festival. Nobody in Hollywood had heard of the thing, let alone flew their private jets to it. Of course, 30 years later, independent filmmakers consider Park City the single most important piece of real estate east of Silver Lake, at least for 10 days every January. Indeed, so much indie history has been made at the festival over the past three decades — and so many storied careers launched, from Quentin Tarantino‘s to Hugh Grant‘s, from Steven Soderbergh‘s to Kevin Smith‘s — it’d be impossible to recount it all here. So THR has whittled them down to 30 key moments.
1. Sex, lies, and videotape sells for $1 million (1989)
The mother of all indies, Steven Soderbergh‘s low-budget ($1.2 million) yarn about a bunch of restless Baton Rouge yuppies — played by then-unknowns Peter Gallagher, James Spader, Andie MacDowell and Laura San Giacomo — lost the Grand Prize to Nancy Savoca‘s True Love (bet you can’t remember that cast). But it became independent film’s first real crossover hit. After its million-dollar purchase at Sundance (by some guy named Harvey), it went on to gross $25 million and put Redford’s festival (and the Weinsteins) squarely on the map.
2. Rodriguez’s $7,000 El Mariachi debuts (1992)
That’s right — it cost less to make Robert Rodriguez‘s groundbreaking Spanish-language gunslinger tale than Arnold Schwarzenegger probably spent that year for moisturizer on the Terminator 2 set. The movie’s critical and box-office success (it ended up grossing $2 million) proved that you didn’t need a Hollywood-sized production budget to make a stylish action thriller. It inspired countless other wannabe independent directors and ushered in a decade of micro-financed filmmaking (i.e., maxing out your credit cards to pay for your film stock; see No. 9, Kevin Smith‘s Clerks).
3. Reservoir Dogs launches Tarantino (1992)
The premiere didn’t get off to a great start. “I was sitting next to Quentin,” recalls Lawrence Bender, Tarantino’s longtime producing partner, “and I was really nervous because the gate on the projector was wrong. The movie was screening not just on the screen but on the walls around the side. I said to Quentin, ‘This is terrible.’ He said, ‘Relax, it’s OK.’ He was trying to make me feel better. But I was literally sweating. And then, the film broke. The power went out. Everything just went black.” They got the picture up again, of course, and the rest is film history. Tarantino’s reboot of the gangster genre-flick wasn’t just a Sundance smash — it rewrote the rule book on what an independent movie could be.
4. Hoop Dreams shoots and scores (1994)
The documentary that made documentaries hot, Steven James‘ nearly three-hour story about high school kids with NBA dreams grossed an unheard-of $9 million.
5. Harvey Weinstein loses Shine — and his temper (1996)
Some great films unspooled at the festival that January — Welcome to the Dollhouse, Big Night — but the most entertaining spectacle took place at an Italian restaurant called Mercato Mediterraneo. It was there that an upset Weinstein got into a dustup with Fine Line’s Jonathan Weisgal over the distribution rights to Scott Hicks‘ schizophrenia drama, Shine. Weinstein reportedly shoved Taplin into a corner and loudly accused him of swiping the rights out from under him. According to Peter Biskind‘s Down and Dirty Pictures, Harvey’s exact words to Taplin were, “You f—! You f—ed me! You bid me up … you f—er!” The incident has since become an overblown industry legend (Entourage did a parody). But Harvey got the last laugh. Miramax scored international rights, and the film was a huge hit overseas.
6. Roger Ebert gives Justin Lin a thumbs-up (2002)
During a Q & A after a screening of Justin Lin‘s Asian-American crime drama Better Luck Tomorrow, an audience member criticized the film for being “empty and amoral for Asian-Americans.” Ebert, who happened to be in the audience, was livid. “Nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, ‘How could you do this to your people?’ ” he yelled as the rest of the audience cheered him on. Lin, who went on to direct four Fast & Furious films, remembers chatting with Ebert in a corner of the theater afterward. “We were this little film with an Asian-American cast — distributors were going out of their way to kick us,” Lin recalls. “But Roger said the most important thing was to go out there and be passionate. I appreciated him saying that.”
7. The swag invasion begins (1999)
It started, harmlessly enough, with a VIP pass to a free Estee Lauder hair and makeup treatment. “I couldn’t find a place to get my hair done,” recalls Lara Shriftman, the publicist who threw Sundance’s very first swag parties. “So we set up a beauty suite. That went so well — about 200 people came. The next year we rented a house and branded it Motorola and hosted high-profile events with Hugo Boss.” Within a few years, swag suites became so ubiquitous at Sundance — and so over-the-top, with some celebrity goodie bags packed with as much as $50,000 worth of gifts — that the festival began an anti-swag campaign, encouraging stars to boycott the free stuff.
8. Four Weddings and a Funeral kills (1994)
It cost only about a quarter of a million dollars to make. It ended up earning a quarter of a billion, which makes Four Weddings and a Funeral one of the most profitable films ever to screen at Sundance.
9. Kevin Smith’s Clerks earns an R rating (1994)
There wasn’t an iota of nudity in Smith’s microfinanced (the $27,000 budget came from Smith’s maxed-out-credit card) black-and-white comedy about a bunch of New Jersey slackers working in a convenience store. But the dialogue was so outlandishly and inventively profane, the film ended up getting slapped with an NC-17 rating. For Miramax, which bought the movie after Harvey Weinstein caught its final screening at Sundance, the harsh rating turned out to be a PR bonanza. Writing the opening chapter in Miramax’s guerrilla marketing playbook, Weinstein hired O.J. Simpson lawyer Alan Dershowitz to spearhead a publicity blitz that made the movie a cause celebre well before it hit theaters. The MPAA ultimately reconsidered and changed Clerks’ ratings to R.
10. Sunshine strikes it rich (2006)
Sales agent/lawyer John Sloss knew he had a hit even before Little Miss Sunshine‘s screening was over. “It was playing huge,” he later recalled. “I knew everyone would want it. Just before the lights came up, I said, ‘I’ve got to get out of here. It’s going to get ugly. [Distributors] are not going to leave me alone until they get it.’ So my assistant and I drove out to a Ruby Tuesday for a few hours. They have the bottomless salad bar. You just don’t get that in New York.” The movie ended up setting a still unbroken Sundance sales record, going to Fox Searchlight for $10.5 million. It turned out to be a bargain. The film wound up grossing more than $100 million.
11. Gay films find a platform (1991)
“Queer Cinema” — movies by gay directors about gay characters — was always embraced by Sundance. “Not only embraced, you could say it began there,” says veteran indie director Ira Sachs, who is screening his sixth film at the festival this year (Love Is Strange). “I was at the first screening of Todd Haynes‘ Poison in 1991. I was at the first screening of Rose Troche‘s Go Fish at the Holiday Village Cinema in 1994. I wanted to be Rose and I wanted to be Todd. I think that’s how movements happen. You aspire.”
12. Blair Witch blankets Park City (1999)
Producers of the original found-footage horror movie plastered fake “missing person” posters, with the faces of some of the film’s cast, all over the festival. The stunt certainly helped generate attention. The film sold for $1.1 million to Artisan, then went on to gross $140 million.
13. Kids does all right (1995)
Larry Clark‘s quasi-documentary drama about sexually super-active, morally stunted high schoolers in New York City got slapped with an NC-17 from the MPAA and ignited a firestorm among critics. The New York Times called it a “wake-up call to the modern world.” The Washington Post, on the other hand, called it borderline child pornography. By any other name, the film ended up grossing $20 million.
14. 9 Songs does the impossible — shocks Sundance (2005)
This melancholy Michael Winterbottom romance followed a young London couple over the course of 12 months and nine concerts. It also happened to feature the first unsimulated sexual intercourse ever shown at Sundance. It remains the most sexually explicit non-pornographic film ever released. Winterbottom shocked Sundance again in 2010 with ultraviolent The Killer Inside Me.
15. The Dude fights dirty (2009)
Film critics are supposed to be passionate, but Variety‘s John Anderson actually came to blows with film publicist Jeff Dowd after a disagreement in a coffeehouse parking lot over the artistic merit of documentary Dirt! The Movie. “I go into the restaurant and John is sitting at a table,” recalls Dowd (who, incidentally, is widely believed to be the inspiration for The Dude in The Big Lebowski). “He comes around the table and throws a right-hand cross, then a right-hand jab to my nose. He’s fast. He used to be a boxer. But I’m a wrestler. He barely rocked me.”
16. Trade wars erupt (2000)
Variety and THR both get into Sundance scrapes. First, Variety‘s Dan Cox is arrested for disorderly conduct after he can’t get into a CAA party. Then, THR‘s critic Kirk Honeycutt nearly gets into fisticuffs with Courtney Love, after Love grabs his wife’s camera and throws it to the ground. Honeycutt and Love reportedly made up afterward.
17. Banksy paints the town (2010)
The elusive British graffiti artist visits Sundance, leaves masterpieces everywhere.
18.-23. Sundance’s six biggest legal brawls
Kurt & Courtney, Nick Broomfield‘s documentary about the death of Kurt Cobain, got pulled from the 1998 festival after Love threatened to sue. That’s just one of many suits that have swirled around Sundance: A 2004 filing for $10 million by Napoleon Dynamite‘s producers over the contracts signed at Sundance with Fox Searchlight; a suit over Michael Keaton‘s failure to appear at the 2008 Sundance screening of The Merry Gentleman; no fewer than four lawsuits over 2009’s Grand Jury Prize-winning drama Precious, between The Weinstein Co. and Lionsgate over disputed North American rights; a defamation suit filed by real estate mogul David Siegel just before the 2012 festival screening of The Queen of Versailles, a documentary about his life that filmmakers were billing as a “rags-to-riches-to-rags story”; and an $11 million suit filed in 2012 by a branding agency called Hype Creative Agency over an event that never took place at Redford’s Park City restaurant, Zoom.
24. A camel walks Main Street (2013)
To promote his movie Egypt Through the Glass Shop (which wasn’t even screening at Sundance), filmmaker Next Anyextee takes a camel ride through Park City. Police cite him for obstructing traffic.
25.-29. Biggest Sundance Bombs:
Hamlet 2 (2008)
BOUGHT FOR $10 million
BOX OFFICE $4.8 million
Happy, Texas (1999)
BOUGHT FOR $2.5 million to $10 million (depending on whom you believe)
BOX OFFICE $2 million
BOUGHT FOR $4 million
BOX OFFICE $1.5 million
Introducing the Dwights (2007)
BOUGHT FOR $4 million
BOX OFFICE $400,000
Grace Is Gone (2007)
BOUGHT FOR $4 million
BOX OFFICE $50,000
30. CAA’s XXX party (2013)
At Sundance, unsimulated sexual conduct is sometimes permitted on the screen (see No. 14) but offscreen, even the simulated sort is frowned upon (it is, after all, Utah). So when CAA threw a party with pole-shimmying Vegas burlesque dancers, some of them wearing strap-on penises, it did not go over well. Nicole Kidman was so put off, she promptly left. “I think I prefer it out here,” she was heard saying.