The Sundance Film Festival's 20 Biggest Oscar Success Stories

It’s a big week, gang. The Sundance Film Festival is still going strong, with more hotly-tipped movies set to premiere, while tomorrow sees one of the biggest events of the film year, with the announcement of this year’s Oscar nods, where Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By The Sea,” one of the biggest hits of last year’s Sundance, is expected to be one of the most nominated films. Meanwhile, in Park City, potential contenders for next year’s award circuit are already emerging, perhaps most notably Dee Rees’ acclaimed “Mudbound,”  and Luca Guadagnino‘s universally adored “Call Me By Your Name.”

Given all of that, we thought we’d kick off the week by looking at some of the biggest previous cross-overs between the biggest independent film festival in the world and the movie business’s most prestigious awards, with 20 films that went from Park City premieres to Academy Award triumph.

Our ground rules were a combination of hard facts and gut instinct — there are some Oscar-recognized movies that others might count as Sundance titles, but that premiered elsewhere and/or just don’t feel like Sundance titles to us. On one or another of those criteria we’ve excluded Christopher Nolan‘s “Memento,” Paul Schrader‘s “Affliction,” Billy Bob Thornton’s “Sling Blade,” Kimberly Peirce‘s “Boys Don’t Cry” (which aired in snippets at Sundance under the working title “Take It Like A Man,” but premiered in Toronto), Peter Cattaneo‘s “The Full Monty,” Giuseppe Tornatore‘s “Cinema Paradiso,” and Norman Jewison‘s Oscar-heavy “Moonstruck” (6 nominations, 3 wins) among others.

Still, that left us with plenty to choose from — take a scoot through our 20 picks below and let us know your favorite Sundance-to-Oscar journey in the comments.

Click here for our complete coverage from the 2017 Sundance Film Festival

Hannah And Her Sisters“Hannah and her Sisters” (1986)
Oscar History: At the 1987 Oscars the film got seven nods — Best Picture, Best Director (Woody Allen), Original Screenplay (Allen), Best Supporting Actor (Michael Caine), Best Supporting Actress (Dianne Wiest), Best Editing, and Best Art Direction. Of those, it won three — Allen picked up his second screenplay Oscar (of three, the others being for “Annie Hall” and “Midnight in Paris“), and Wiest and Caine took the supporting acting categories.
Unquestionably one of the most be-Oscared Sundance premieres ever, we were a little hesitant to put Woody Allen’s wonderful ensemble dramedy on this list, purely because it doesn’t truly feel like a Sundance film: it snuck an out-of-competition premiere in Park City just a few weeks before its real release (and may have played LA before that.) Still, we have confirmation of its Sundance “premiere” from our most trusted source for movie news — Skiing Magazine — so we’re taking that as gospel, even though it’s the rare example of a film that probably would have gained just as much prestige and Oscar success without its Sundance connection, especially with the festival as we know it in its infancy back then, seeing as Allen was already so well established, and the film is inarguably one of his very best.

four-weddings-and-a-funeral-2“Four Weddings And A Funeral” (1994)
Oscar History: A Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay nomination for Richard Curtis at the 67th Academy Awards in 1995.
Premiering out of competition as it did at a time when Sundance mania was really taking off (it was the year that Kevin Smith, David O. Russell and Kelly Reichardt broke out in Park City), Mike Newell’s Brit rom-com “Four Weddings And A Funeral” is somewhat ignored in the festival’s history. Which is odd — partly because it’s still one of the most successful films to have debuted there, taking over $250 million worldwide and becoming the first Sundance premiere since “Hannah And Her Sisters” to win a Best Picture nomination (along with a nod for writer Richard Curtis), and partly because it still holds up, as funny and iconic a rom-com as has been made in the last twenty-five years. The festival proved to be the perfect launching pad for the film, getting buzz going early that lasted all the way to it beating out movies including “Bullets Over Broadway” and “Ed Wood” to the fifth slot, joining “Forrest Gump,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Quiz Show” and “The Shawshank Redemption.”

“The Usual Suspects” (1995)
Oscar History: Two for two at the 68th Academy Awards in 1996, with Kevin Spacey winning Best Supporting Actor and Christopher McQuarrie earning a Best Original Screenplay statue.
Number one with a bullet on our recent spoilerific Best Movie Twists feature, Bryan Singer‘s colossally enjoyable thriller took the “sex, lies and videotape” route to awards glory, debuting in Sundance, gaining a Cannes berth as a result and finally landing on the Academy’s radar. However it was actually the second time a Singer-directed and McQuarrie-scripted film made waves at Sundance — two years earlier their mutual feature debut “Public Access” had picked up the festival’s Grand Jury Prize. Still, it was this follow-up that really launched them both, with McQuarrie soon after graduating to his directing debut, while Kevin Spacey’s Oscar assured the actor, who until then had seemed like he might be relegated to “oleaginous supporting character” forever, a shot at leading-man stardom, that would be crowned a few years later with his Best Actor award for “American Beauty.” But really, all the silverware in the world can’t outshine the lasting impact this film has had on popular culture.

When We Were Kings
“When We Were Kings” (1996)
Oscar History: Won Best Documentary Feature at the 69th ceremony in 1996.
Leon Gast’s thrillingly crafted re-telling of the famous ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ fight in Zaire between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman wasn’t the first documentary to premiere at Sundance and go on to be Oscar-nominated — “Hellfire: A Journey From Hiroshima” managed that ten years earlier. It wasn’t even the first to win: Barbara Kopple’s “American Dream” took the trophy five years earlier (though technically had premiered at the NYFF first). But it was certainly the biggest non-fiction triumph of the festival up to that point: two decades in the making, it crossed over in a way that few docs did, thanks to its visceral reconstruction of not just the fight, but the politics, the country and the era. When Gast won the prize, it also provided the ceremony’s most moving moment, as he invited Ali to the stage and led a standing ovation to him.


“Shine” (1996)
Oscar History: Won Best Actor for Geoffrey Rush at the 69th Oscars, was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (for Scott Hicks), Best Actor In A Supporting Role (Armin Mueller-Stahl), Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Sound and Best Original Score.
Though other Sundance movies had brushed with Oscars before (see above), “Shine” marked something of a sea change: the first time that a true discovery, a film from a director that few had heard of, starring a cast of mostly unfamiliar names (with a few big supporting players like John Gielgud), broke through in a big way with multiple nominations including Best Picture. Scott Hicks’ film about Australian pianist David Helfgott, who overcomes a mental breakdown and an overbearing father, was an instant hit when it screened out of competition in Park City, sparking a bidding war eventually won by Fine Line. And they did right by the movie, which was a modest hit, and picked up eight Oscar nods, including a win for Geoffrey Rush, a 45-year-old Australian stage actor whose performance as Helfgott was his first major movie role. It truly put Sundance on the map as a destination for potential awards movies.