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‘Boyhood’ and ‘Whiplash,’ Sundance-to-Oscar path improves

PARK CITY, Utah (AP) ― An Academy Award nomination is an incomparable stamp of approval for any film ― and for an indie feature coming out of the Sundance Film Festival, in some cases, it’s a downright miracle.

The festival, which kicked off last week in Park City, Utah, has had a scattered record with the Oscars, but its track record for the night’s top award ― best picture ― has been steadily improving over the past few years.

This year, “Whiplash” and “Boyhood” ― both Sundance premieres ― are among the eight best picture nominees. “Boyhood” is considered a favorite to win.

Coming on the heels of previous best picture nominations for Sundance films like “Precious,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Winter’s Bone” over the past few years, the festival has become a breeding ground for awards candidates. In 2014, for example, Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash” was programmed as the opening night film.

Erik Davis, a contributing editor at movie ticketing site Fandango, believes it’s a ripple effect.

“Because filmmakers, studios, producers are seeing a lot of Oscar movies begin to come out of Sundance, I think they’re looking at Sundance as a strategy to put the movies that they feel have a chance in the Sundance lineup,” said Davis.
A festival banner hangs along Main Street during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Jan. 22. (AP-Yonhap)
A festival banner hangs along Main Street during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Jan. 22. (AP-Yonhap)

Davis said he’s seen the quality of the films steadily increase in the decade since he began attending.

“In all the years I’ve been going to Sundance, I’ve never seen an opening night film as strong as ‘Whiplash.’ I feel like the festival was kind of making a statement but at the same time taking a risk by programming such a strong film right at the start of the festival,” he said.

“Whiplash” in some ways is the ultimate Oscars Cinderella story. What started as a short at the 2013 festival and premiered in feature form at the 2014 festival without a distributor lined up 12 months later gets singled out by the Academy as one of the best pictures of the year.

Producer Bob Tourtellotte (“Meth Head”) thinks the focus on festivals has intensified due to the changing landscape of theatrical releases.

“Because there are fewer dramas in theatrical release and one of the few places to see the new and the best of indie dramas is Sundance, then when it comes to Oscars, those dramas at Sundance gain even greater importance and visibility,” he said.

Some movies, Tourtellotte said, come to the festival with an eye on the prize. Others, like “Whiplash,” benefit from the fact that there are so many media and industry people already there.

Keith Simanton, managing editor of IMDB, thinks that there is something bigger going on that all started with the Academy’s expansion of the best picture category from five films to as many as 10.

“I think ironically what’s happened is now it’s almost like ‘best of the fest’ in some ways. This year is a very good example of that. Every film except for ‘American Sniper’ debuted at a festival,” he said, referring to this year’s best picture nominees.

While the Toronto International Film Festival and Telluride will continue to be harbingers of major awards contenders from major studios, mainstream success for an indie film festival is challenging to maintain year after year.

“It’ll be interesting to see how they follow last year,” said Davis. “That actually kind of puts pressure on the film festival to keep up with that. If they don’t have two or three best picture nominees that come out of this year’s lineup, is it a failure for them?”