(The Root) — There is nothing like basking in the glow of the Sundance Film Festival, especially if you are a first-time filmmaker. Ryan Coogler found this out when he got a standing ovation after the premiere of his film Fruitvale, which he wrote and directed. Coogler's experience at Sundance only got better, when the Weinstein Company bought Fruitvale soon after it screened for a reported $2.5 million.
[Updated Sun., Jan. 27 9:00 p.m.: Fruitvale won the grand jury prize and the audience award in the dramatic film categories at a Sundance awards ceremony on Saturday.]
The feature is based on the real-life story of Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old African-American man who was shot and killed by a white transit officer at the Fruitvale BART station in California on New Year's Day, 2009. It stars Michael B. Jordan (Wallace from HBO's The Wire), who calls Coogler "talented and thorough," and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, who joined the film's cast and explained, "When we get these opportunities we have to take them." Then she added jokingly, "and especially being a black chubby woman in this industry."
Spencer makes a valid point — when a good indie film comes along, it's often important that top black Hollywood talent supports it. Of the 12,146 submissions at Sundance this year, only 119 feature-length films made the cut. Even fewer of those final participating films get a distribution deal with a major film studio that's going to get the film in front of mainstream audiences. And a fraction of those lucky projects, if any, are about black subjects or helmed by black directors. Coogler's success this year is proof that the festival can work, even for a relative newcomer. "Sundance gives you an audience, and that audience has a potential to grow," Coogler told The Root.
That sentiment was shared by another first-time Sundancer. "To be considered one of those new voices that they think is worthy of being heard is obviously a tremendous honor, and I hope it leads to me doing more," Shaka King told The Root. King also wrote and directed a feature, Newlyweeds, a slightly dark romantic comedy about a Brooklyn, N.Y., couple who love each other as much as they love weed. Phase 4 Films acquired the North American rights and is planning a theatrical and video-on-demand release this summer. King is not resting on his laurels, though. "I have plenty of work when I get home," said King, who lives in Brooklyn and is working on two movie scripts and a TV series.
The reality of Sundance, however, is that not everyone gets a deal, and not every deal translates to instant fame and fortune. The buzz around last year's hot Sundance film, Beasts of the Southern Wild, has just gotten bigger, with its charismatic child star, Quvenzhané Wallis, in prime position to win a best actress Oscar. Five years ago, Sundance grand jury prizes went to the documentary Trouble the Water and the feature film Frozen River. Both films received huge amounts of critical acclaim. Even if they didn't put up record numbers at the box office, they earned Academy Award nominations.
Then there's the case of first-time filmmaker Dennis Dortch. He screened his effort, A Good Day to Be Black & Sexy, at Sundance the same year. It was eventually distributed by Magnolia Pictures, opening in one theater where it grossed a little more than $6,000, according to IMDB.com. Far from being the blockbuster hit that many directors hope to score, the film was seen by a relative handful of people. But Dortch doesn't sound bitter.
"I had great opportunities that came out of Sundance that lasted for a two-year stretch," Dortch told The Root from his home in Los Angeles. He claimed he's not beholden to chasing opportunities in the Hollywood studio system. "I'm about ownership, even if it's a small piece. I'm not a work for hire."
This year Dortch said he plans to shoot his second feature film, The Couple, based on a popular Web series he created for his Internet channel Black&Sexy.tv.
There is no doubt that Sundance opens the door; what filmmakers do once they walk through it is really up to them. Shari Frilot, a senior programmer at Sundance, explained that every year she ponders the same question, "What's to become of these filmmakers?" Sundance recently started an artists' services division to help with distribution. Of the Weinstein-Coogler deal, she said that it indicates a company's investment in the director. "They actually believe in the vision of this director, so I expect to see more of him coming down the pike," Frilot told The Root.
Even before the Weinstein Company came along, Coogler already had one very big investor. Forest Whitaker, whom Coogler affectionately called "Uncle Forest" during the Sundance screening, is Fruitvale's executive producer. Whitaker told The Root that he took on the project after meeting with Coogler "because of his passion, because of his vision." The Oscar winner was doing double duty in Park City; he also premiered his own film, Vipaka, at the Slamdance film festival, which runs concurrently with Sundance.
For Whitaker, Vipaka was a chance to take a short film with a white cast and turn it into a feature with an all-black cast that his company, JuntoBox Films, will distribute. "I really thought this film could be better served with an all-black cast and review something unique and different," Whitaker explained. The thriller, about a disturbed man receiving therapy from a life coach, stars Whitaker, Anthony Mackie, Mike Epps, Sanaa Lathan and Nicole Ari Parker.
Ultimately, Sundance means different things to different people, and no two experiences are alike. Coogler says no matter what comes his way down the road, he's fulfilled at least part of his dream. "At the end of the day, it's all fantastic and great because people are watching your movie," he said.
Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.