Whatever Happened to Fest Faves?

Come August, anyone who'd been caught up in the excitement of January's Sundance Film Festival begins to wonder, "What happened to all those promising movies?"

Ever since Steven Soderbergh's surprise hit, "sex, lies and videotape," made its debut at the Park City, Utah, festival in 1989, Sundance has become the place for Hollywood to find young talent. For the two weeks of the festival, struggling directors and writers can bask in comparisons to Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs") or Richard Linklater ("Slacker") as agents sniff around them like eager bloodhounds.

And then suddenly the party's over and reality sets in. Months go by, and the films are temporarily forgotten.

Of the more widely discussed debuts at this year's festival, only in the past month or so have a few of these works by first- or second-time filmmakers been released, including Rose Troche's lesbian romantic comedy "Go Fish"; David O. Russell's "Spanking the Monkey," the tale of one young man's worst summer vacation, and the out-of-competition "Mi Vida Loca," a saga of Echo Park Latinas directed by Allison Anders.

But where are the other standout items: Tom Noonan's Grand Jury Prize winner "What Happened Was . . . ," the ultimate date-night drama; the two Filmmakers' Trophy winners, "Clerks," Kevin Smith's comedy about employees in a convenience store, and Boaz Yakin's inner-city thriller "Fresh," and the acclaimed documentaries "Hoop Dreams," about two teens with basketball fever, and "Martha and Ethel," a tale of two nannies?

Most are actually due this fall and winter. The long lag time between festival and release, says Liz Manne, senior vice president of marketing at Fine Line Pictures, distributors of "Spanking the Monkey" and "Hoop Dreams," is due to the big difference between the warm collegiality of a film festival and the cold realities of the marketplace. With each of these releases, it's a matter of "doing the work to take the excitement and hype of the festival-goers and extend it to the population as a whole," she says.

This requires a great deal of intensive labor and often, cosmetic surgery, which can take four to six months at least--including everything from blowing up the film to 35-millimeter, to slapping on a new soundtrack, and even editing. Then the film has to be screened for its target audience, a marketing campaign must be developed and just the right release date selected.

How is all this accomplished without losing the head of steam the film picked up at Sundance? Deftly, say independent film distributors. One misstep and the film can disappear without a trace and a potentially promising career can be pushed back to square one.

Reviews help. But "artistic integrity doesn't always translate into commerciality," says Goldwyn's vice president of distribution, Eamonn Bowles, who plans to roll out "What Happened Was . . ." very slowly this fall, when it goes head-to-head with sophisticated fare from the major studios.

Fall is popular because by the time all the work is done preparing these Sundance films, it's too late for a spring release. During summer, independent film companies release films at their own risk; the blockbuster season should be the worst time to launch a specialized low-budget film. Yet that's exactly when Bowles reasoned that Goldwyn should go with "Go Fish," hooking its release onto the celebrations surrounding June's 25th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, a gay liberation cornerstone.

"Stonewall helped put the film on the map," says Bowles. And the payoff on the $100,000-budgeted comedy has been $2 million to date.

Summer has also proved a charm for "Spanking the Monkey," says Manne, as counterprogramming against the studio blockbusters. The youth-oriented comedy has done well in limited release, with reviews even stronger than those from Sundance.

Which is another reason to give some breathing room between the festival and a film's release. At Sundance critics sometimes overdose on films; a bit of distance and subsequent festival exposure at Cannes, Toronto and New York can give a clearer picture of a film's relative strengths and weaknesses.

Miramax is launching the fall with "Fresh," a clear-eyed look at a tough inner-city New York kid, on Aug. 31. After a summer of action and comedy, "audiences are starved for this kind of film," says David Dinerstein, vice president of marketing at Miramax.

Miramax is also planning on "Clerks," Smith's $27,000 first feature, for this fall, but much polishing--and a much-publicized appeal for its NC-17 rating--still lies ahead. Between now and its Oct. 21 release date, when the film's core college audience will be settled in school, Miramax will screen "Clerks" outside on a screen at this weekend's Woodstock reunion--a captive audience if there ever was one--and at university and college towns around the country.

The preparation for Fine Line's "Hoop Dreams" will be trickier. Though it won the Sundance audience documentary prize, nonfiction films are always a tough sell. As with "Spanking," says Manne, picking the right release date for Steve James' seven-years-in-the-making film is crucial. Fine Line will launch "Hoop Dreams" roughly at the start of the NBA basketball season.

Jyll Johnstone's "Martha and Ethel" is a documentary with a less-obvious hook. The history of two nannies is a definite adult, art-house subject like "What Happened Was. . . ." In fact, by the time "Martha and Ethel" finally opens early next year, the 17th annual Sundance Film Festival will be in progress. And the distributors will have to start all over again.*

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