Mark Roybal, president of production at Indian Paintbrush, still remembers the rush he got from viewing "Little Miss Sunshine" at its 2006 Sundance Film Festival screening.
"It was one of the most unbelievable experiences I've ever had," he says. "I went as an audience member, and the crowd was rapturous. You'd just discovered a gem, now you feel like you're in on something, and you want to advocate for it."
Today, Roybal is hoping his and Paramount's "Like Crazy" — acquired out of Sundance this year — has the same kind of juice "Sunshine" legendarily generated, going from wild festival enthusiasm to wild envelope opening in February. He's not alone. The industry increasingly uses early-year film festivals to find those elusive gems and later-year festivals to position their most likely award candidates for success.
"You spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of your company's money on something that may not pay off when you put it in the Oscar race," says Eric Kops, senior vice president of publicity at Summit Entertainment, which is banking on the Toronto International Film Festival sleeper hit "50/50." "A film festival reception can guide you in little ways or big ways."
"You're always calibrating and recalibrating your release strategy based on the feedback you get at a major festival," says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, whose hopes for "Melancholia" were severely tested at Cannes. Kirsten Dunst won an acting prize there, buoying hopes for later Oscar recognition, but director Lars von Triers may have left the film — as one industry exec put it — "dead in the water" after making comments about being a Nazi.
Another award-timed film treading water thanks to poor festival reception is the Weinstein Co.'s "W.E.," which didn't play well at Toronto. While Weinstein executive David Glasser says of the film, "We're moving forward as originally planned," the company's still not putting all its eggs in the same Oscar basket: "The Artist" got good word of mouth out of both Cannes and Toronto; and the team expects big things from "My Week With Marilyn" and "Iron Lady," starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher.
"A movie that does well in a festival is a great early indicator. However, it doesn't mean it's bulletproof," Glasser says. "You still need to stick to a smart, strong strategy so the film can grow from the festival and create a broader awareness."
Festival buzz just isn't as important to studio productions and veteran directors; Martin Scorsese didn't have to have "Hugo" finished to make a splash at the New York Film Festival in October, yet he dominated discussion with a special screening of a rough cut.
"When you have a director who has a great history with the Oscars — Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg —they don't have to be in a film festival to be considered for awards," says Michael Barker, Sony Pictures Classics co-president, whose "Midnight in Paris" from Woody Allen has carried its Cannes premiere buzz throughout the summer.
Meanwhile, indie studios need precisely that kind of chatter. "To have the opportunity as a small, independent studio to go to a festival and then get positive press from an acquisition there — that's the beginning of building confidence in your strategy," says Bill Lee, chief executive of Millennium, which picked up the police drama "Rampart" at Toronto and is feeding the slow burn on star Woody Harrelson for Oscar love. "Without festivals, it would be very, very difficult for us."
"Festivals are good for films that don't neatly fit in boxes," says David Fenkel, co-founder of Oscilloscope Laboratories, which hopes its Cannes buy, "We Need to Talk About Kevin," and the film's star, Tilda Swinton, have legs in the upcoming award season. "This film should have a narrative that isn't generated by obvious marketing."
Still, there will be plenty of films that come out of festivals sizzling but end up with no steak to back it up in Oscar season; there are also those films that dodge the likes of Telluride and Toronto to make their mark in such festivals as Woodstock and the Hamptons in New York and Savannah in Georgia.
That's what Ellen Barkin, star and producer of Phase 4's "Another Happy Day," hopes will work for her film. She says, "As a producer, I realize this is a very strong way to raise awareness for a serious, independent movie with a low [profit margin]. It puts you in the conversation."