Film festivals may exist for a number of reasons, but no matter how many glitzy parties, red carpet opportunities, and free-flowing drinks try to sway attention away from the task at hand, they really exist for one major reason: to get undistributed films noticed, talked about, and sold to distributors. While plenty of big name film festivals boast slates that include buzzed-about films with studio backing – most notably the Toronto International Film Festival, which fills its September run with more highly publicized and hotly anticipated titles than you can shake a stick covered in celluloid at – the majority of festivals stuff their schedules with films looking for a home. Finding a distributor for a fresh film may be the film festival dream, but even when it happens for filmmakers, that doesn’t always guarantee that their project will hit the big screen exactly as they envisioned.
Films are always prone to edits, tweaks, and changes, even the finished films that play at film festivals, and Sundance picks are no different. From title switches to whole-film edits, some Sundance films ultimately hit the theatrical market looking very different than they did at the snowy festival.
Three of last year’s biggest Sundance hits were saddled with new monikers before their theatrical release, as Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale” became “Fruitvale Station,” Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon’s Addiction” became just “Don Jon” (effectively removing the sense that the comedy was somehow heavier fare, as “addiction” doesn’t really scream “good times!”), and Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ “Toy’s House” became “The Kings of Summer” (despite the adorableness of the title, which played on main character Joe Toy’s name, the “Kings” title helped facilitate a strong marketing slogan and push the impermanence of the film’s subject matter).
Another one of Sundance 2013’s films, “Two Mothers,” didn’t get a positive reception like its title-changing brethren, which might have helped pushed its own title change – the film (about two mothers who begin dating each other’s teen sons, which was also based on a book with an entirely different name, “The Grandmothers,” which certainly aged up the whole thing) became both “Adore” and “Adoration” (separate VOD-friendly titles depending on the territory in which it was released) before it went into limited theatrical and VOD release. Elsewhere, Sundance 2012 premiere “The Surrogate” became “Six Sessions” before finally settling on “The Sessions.” Premiering that same year, Phil Dorling and Ron Nyswaner’s “Predisposed” then became “Why Stop Now.” It didn’t matter so much (why change now, really) – the film wasn’t well received at the festival, and few people saw it in a non-festival setting.
Even Oscar winner “Precious” first screened at Sundance with another title – it showed at the festival in 2009 as “Push.” The move away from “Push” was to clear up any confusion in regards to yet another film named “Push” (remember, with Dakota Fanning and Captain America mind-blasting each other in Hong Kong or something?) that opened soon after “Precious” blew audiences away at Sundance, but it only led to still more confusion as people began calling it by bloated titles like “Push: Based on the Novel by Sapphire” and “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire.”
To make “precious” matters even more complicated, what would become Alexander Payne’s “Citizen Ruth” was advertised around Sundance 1996 as “Precious,” despite Payne’s distaste for the title (blame Harvey Weinstein for this one, as he acquired the picture before the festival even started, and took it upon himself to give it a new title and a poster to go with it). Still worse, the film was listed in the program as “Meet Ruth Stoops,” a title change that Payne had suggested. It’s a slight miracle anyone even made it to the right theater for this one.
But it’s not just titles that are prone to getting a change after a Sundance bow, often whole films are edited for a more mainstream audience or in response to festival audience reaction.
“Don Jon” didn’t just drop the “Addiction,” it also underwent editing to get its racy material in shape for a more audience-friendly R-rating. (The film, had it been released in its original form, would have likely garnered an NC-17 rating.) Another popular premiere at Sundance 2013 – David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” – also got a release-friendly cut before hitting theaters, but while rumors declared that Harvey Weinstein (always with Harvey!) had saddled his new director with some demands, Lowery already had his own changes in mind and integrated just a few of his ideas. The result wasn’t a big performer, but it was a tighter, stronger take on the material.
Weinstein may have also stuck his fingers into the Tobey Maguire-starring “The Details,” which TWC picked up at Sundance 2011 for a staggering $7.5 million, before holding on to it, recutting it, and eventually quietly releasing it in November of 2012. The dark comedy was always a tough sell, but even changes didn’t turn it into a hit (the film made just $63,595 at the box office).
Lauded documentary “The Interrupters” also went through a number of edits on the way to its limited release. The film debuted a cut at Sundance 2011 that was about 162 minutes, which was then winnowed down to a 144-minute version that played other festivals, with its actual theatrical version clocking in at 125 minutes. The sprawling doc excised whole chunks of its narrative, supposedly in service to keeping things short (well, short-ish) for its theatrical audience. Edited down or not, “The Interrupters” still proved to be a big success, picking up a string of awards like the Independent Spirit Award for Best Documentary.
On the other end of the spectrum, the most memorably major editing overhaul of a Sundance film in recent years fell to Spike Lee’s “Red Hook Summer,” which bowed at Sundance 2012 to major controversy and some seriously divisive reviews. The film reportedly went through some drastic edits before hitting theatres just a few months later, in April of that same year. New edit or not, the film bombed at the box office, pulling in just over $338,000 in release, making it Lee’s lowest-grossing release to date, and proving that any kind of edit can still be a gamble, even for Sundance must-sees.