Sundance: How the Fest's Quirky Indies Have Won Over the Academy

Oscar Superhighway - H 2015
AP Images/Invision

Oscar Superhighway - H 2015

This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Films that are first screened in January are often forgotten by awards season later that year — unless they screen at Sundance, which for the past 25 years has served as a springboard for small but accomplished films, helping them to find distributors which, in turn, help those films find Oscar buzz toward year's end.

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Sundance in 2014, for instance, unveiled Whiplash — an adaptation of a short of the same name and from the same director that premiered at the 2013 fest — which, after winning the grand jury and audience awards, was scooped up by Sony Pictures Classics and nurtured to five Oscar noms, including one for best picture. And Boyhood screened out of competition at the fest, kick-starting the buzz that propelled it all the way to six noms, including one for best picture. Five of the 15 documentary features that wound up on the Oscar shortlist also debuted at Sundance — though only one, Last Days in Vietnam , which screened out of competition, made the final five.

For years, the films that made a splash in Park City went on to receive only Independent Spirit Award nominations, if any. But when the indie boom of the late 1980s and early '90s hit, art house distributors such as Miramax, Sony Classics and Focus Features began scooping up more Sundance indies, exposing them to larger audiences and, in a growing number of cases, convincing Academy members to check them out (screeners certainly helped).

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The first to click with Oscar voters was Steven Soderbergh's 1989 audience award winner sex, lies and videotape, which went on to an original screenplay nom. Others that fit the mold — picking up one of the top Sundance awards en route to Oscar love — included You Can Count on Me (the first to land an acting nom, for Laura Linney); Maria Full of Grace; Hustle & Flow; Precious (the first to land a best picture nom and the first to win Oscars, for Mo'Nique's supporting performance and Geoffrey Fletcher's adapted screen-play); Winter's Bone (another best pic nominee that made a star of — and bagged a best actress nom for — one Jennifer Lawrence); Beasts of the Southern Wild (yet another best pic nominee); and The Sessions.

These days, many prognosticators refer to a "Sundance slot" in the best picture category, assuming that at least one of the brilliant films that screens in the snowy mountains of Utah will make it all the way to the red carpet of the Oscars in competition for the top prize. This year, two did — and, for the first time ever, a film that debuted at Sundance might, in fact, win the best picture Oscar.