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Sundance has string of hits

| Thursday, Sept. 2, 2004

LOS ANGELES -- Geeks, sharks, lovable neurotics and a fast-food fiend have given the Sundance Film Festival one of its biggest years ever at theaters.

While none of the movies that came out of last January's festival approached the $140 million success of Sundance's all-time smash "The Blair Witch Project," the independent-film showcase has produced a string of mini-hits.

First-time filmmaker Jared Hess' "Napoleon Dynamite," about a collection of Idaho nerds finding their place in the world, and director Chris Kentis' shark nightmare "Open Water," based on a true story of a couple mistakenly left behind among hungry predators on a scuba-diving trip, both should finish with about $30 million in domestic revenues.

Writer-director Zach Braff's romance "Garden State," in which he stars as an actor reuniting with offbeat pals during a funeral homecoming, has passed the $10 million mark with plenty of steam left.

"Super Size Me," tracing director Morgan Spurlock's health deterioration on an all-McDonald's diet, topped out at $11.2 million, impressive results for a documentary.

"There's been a real blending of indie film and commercial prospects out of Sundance," said Steve Gilula, head of distribution for Fox Searchlight, which released "Napoleon Dynamite" and "Garden State." "Financially, other than 'Blair Witch,' I don't think there's any year that compares."

In past years, Sundance has had the occasional breakout hit like "In the Bedroom," which took in $36 million. The best Sundance films more typically gross just a few million dollars.

A handful of other Sundance flicks have done decent business this year. Among them: "Maria Full of Grace," about a young Colombian woman who signs on as a drug mule looking for a better life in the United States, which won the audience award for favorite Sundance dramatic film; the domestic drama "We Don't Live Here Anymore," starring Laura Dern, Naomi Watts, Mark Ruffalo and Peter Krause; the political documentary "Control Room"; and the surfing documentary "Riding Giants," the festival's opening-night film.

Still to come this year are three top Sundance prize winners: "Primer," a techno-thriller that won the jury award for best dramatic film; "Dig!," a portrait of the friendship and rivalry between musicians Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Courtney Taylor of the Dandy Warhols, which won the documentary jury award; and "Born Into Brothels," the audience-award documentary that examines hardships endured by impoverished children of prostitutes in Calcutta.

Other well-received films that found distributors at Sundance also arrive in theaters late this year: "The Woodsman," starring Kevin Bacon in a career performance as a child molester trying to rebuild his life after prison; "The Motorcycle Diaries," director Walter Salles' lively portrait of young Ernesto "Che" Guevara on a formative road trip across South America; and "The Machinist," with Christian Bale in a thriller about a man questioning his sanity after going without sleep for a year.

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