Movies

15 Biggest Box Office Hits to Premiere at Sundance

Films like “Precious,” “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Napoleon Dynamite” all made noise in Park City before hitting the box office


Sundance is the biggest market for indie films around, and for good reason. The festival has a history of finding the quirky, independent crowd-pleaser that goes on to be a box office smash. 2020 saw a record sale of $17.5 million for the Andy Samberg comedy “Palm Springs,” which proved to be one of Hulu’s biggest movies ever. And while some films fizzle at the box office despite their festival hype, many more manage to sustain that buzz all the way until Oscar season. Here are a few that made a splash at both Park City and for wide audiences. All box office figures are domestic numbers. 

15. “A Walk in the Woods” (2015) – $29.5 million  •  It should come as no surprise that Robert Redford premiered a movie he starred in at his own festival. But he also proved that he still carries some box office clout.

14. “(500) Days of Summer” (2009) – $35.9 million  •  Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel starred in this inventive indie rom-com from director Marc Webb that Fox Searchlight distributed to make it one of the sleeper indie hits of the summer of 2009.

13. “In the Bedroom” (2001) – $35.9 million  •  “In the Bedroom” was the first film to ever score a Best Picture Oscar nomination after making its premiere at Sundance, and its four additional nominations — including for Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson and Marisa Tomei — were the most received by any Sundance film until the release of “Precious” in 2009.

12. “Brooklyn” (2015) – $38.3 million  •  The period-piece romance starring Saoirse Ronan as an Irish immigrant to New York wowed audiences and buyers, with another heated bidding war ensuing that ultimately went to Fox Searchlight for $9 million.

11. “The Big Sick” (2017) – $42.8 million  •  Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon’s debut screenplay about their own romance sparked a bidding war among buyers, eventually landing with Amazon for $12 million, which was only the second-highest acquisition of that year behind Netflix’s pickup of “Mudbound.”

10. “Hereditary” (2018) – $44.1 million  •  The biggest box office hit of Sundance 2018 was a midnight screening picked up by A24. “Hereditary” earned acclaim from critics and audiences alike for its disturbing portrayal of grief and its destructive power, and was declared by many to be the finest performance of Toni Collette’s career.

9. “Napoleon Dynamite” (2004) – $44.5 million  •  The deadpan, oddball comedy “Napoleon Dynamite” made a star out of Jon Heder and went on to become a cult hit as well as a big success, considering its minuscule budget of just $400,000.

8. “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire” (2009) – $47.6 million  •  Lee Daniels’ heart-wrenching film “Precious” made such waves at Sundance that Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey announced that they would be leading the film’s marketing, jumping on board as executive producers. It made Gabourey Sidibe a star and Mo’Nique an Oscar winner for her fiery performance as Precious’ cruel mother.

7. “Manchester by the Sea” (2016) – $47.7 million  •  Amazon paid a whopping $10 million for the rights to release Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea.” It went on to make the company a major player on the indie festival scene and even netted an Oscar win for Lonergan and its male lead, Casey Affleck.

6. “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (1994) – $52.7 million  •  This beloved comedy with Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell was made quickly and cheaply. With $245.7 million worldwide, it was the highest grossing British film in history at the time of its release.

5. “Saw” (2004) – $55.2 million  •  It’s hard to believe that a movie that has spawned a half-dozen sequels actually made its premiere as an indie film at Sundance, but Lionsgate nabbed it days before the festival, launching the career of director James Wan in the process.

4. “The Butterfly Effect” (2004) – $57.9 million  •  Ashton Kutcher was at the peak of his fame when he appeared at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. Though critics weren’t kind to the movie or to Kutcher’s performance in the psychological thriller, it went on to be a box office success, making $96.1 million worldwide.

3. “Little Miss Sunshine” (2006) – $59.8 million  •  “Little Miss Sunshine” might be the quintessential Sundance movie — a quirky, happy-go-lucky family comedy about an offbeat group of individuals — but it would also prove to be a massive crowd-pleaser. Fox Searchlight acquired it for $10.5 million in a heated bidding war, which at the time was among the highest amounts spent for a Sundance title. The film also won two Oscars, including for Alan Arkin, and earned a nomination for its child star Abigail Breslin.

2. “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) – $140.5 million  •  When it first premiered at Sundance, “The Blair Witch Project” was hyped as though the actors in the film were either “deceased” or “missing.” Critics raved about how the horror film introduced the “found footage” technique to the movies, leading Artisan Films to acquire it for $1.1 million. The film then received months of publicity and word of mouth attention that it was actually based on real events. And because it was made on a shoestring budget of just $60,000 before grossing $250 million worldwide, it has subsequently become one of the most successful independent films of all time.

1. “Get Out” (2017) – $176.0 million  •  Jordan Peele’s debut film “Get Out” ended up being a studio film distributed by Universal, but it earned its indie cred by premiering at Sundance before surprising audiences with its record-setting box office run a month later in February 2017.
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