Sundance Audience Favorites Indicate Films’ Futures

Perhaps even more of indicator of a film’s eventual commercial career is the Audience Awards given at Sundance because they point to an enthusiasm by the public. Distributors who may be wary of taking on certain titles can look to these prize winners for an early indication of how they will be received by audiences. In the U.S. Documentary Competition, the audience favorite announced at Saturday’s closing awards ceremony, was THE INVISIBLE WAR, an uncompromising look at the explosion of rape and sexual assault cases in the American military. The film, by veteran documentarian Kirby Dick, was produced by public television sources but may secure a short theatrical window prior to its PBS broadcast. “This is amazing”, a delighted Dick expressed from the stage, “I never expect my films to be the kind that audiences will take to because they usually are about such ugly subjects, but I am encouraged that this award will lead to an examination of this horrible stain on our military and to bringing about justice for the victims of this abuse.” In the U.S. Dramatic Competition, the Audience Award was given to THE SURROGATE, an instant audience pleaser with a terrific ensemble cast that includes John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy (who also won the Special Jury Prize For Ensemble Acting award). The film is a dramatization of the true story of journalist and poet Mark O’Brien, whose bout with childhood polio has left in a vegetative state inside an iron lung. While he has a positive attitude and a lust for life and learning, he longs for the one thing he has not experienced……sex and intimacy with a woman. His quest to lose his virginity at age 40 brings him into the orbit of an uninhibited sex therapist (Helen Hunt, in a career capping performance) who guides him through the mechanics and the pleasures of sexual encounter and release. The film, which was picked up by distributor Fox Searchlight for the highest acquisition price of the Festival at $6 million, is bound to be one of the most talked-about films of the year and a definite player in the end-of-year awards season for its actors (with Oscar nominee John Hawkes, already an Oscar nominee for his performance in the Sundance fave WINTER’S BONE, already being buzzed about for Best Actor honors next year) and for the talented writer/director of this sensitive and sensational film, Ben Lewin.

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