By DAVID GERMAIN
PARK CITY, Utah — The nation’s top independent-cinema showcase has become a fertile starting point for the biggest night of the Hollywood establishment: the Academy Awards. As this year’s 11-day festival reached its midpoint this week, stars of Sundance 2006 were back in the spotlight at Tuesday’s Oscar nominations, including the makers of ‘‘Little Miss Sunshine’’ and its co-stars Alan Arkin and Abigail Breslin, ‘‘Half Nelson’’ star Ryan Gosling and ‘‘An Inconvenient Truth’’ documentary subject Al Gore. ...
They’re all part of a growing number of films and performers whose strong start at their world premieres in Sundance carries through to commercial and critical success and, sometimes, Oscar glory.
‘‘Little Miss Sunshine,’’ which charmed audiences at the festival a year ago, earned four nominations: best picture, original screenplay and supporting honors for Arkin as a foul-mouthed but loving grandpa and Breslin as his adorable granddaughter, whose compulsion to win a child beauty pageant sends her dementedly messed-up family on the road trip from hell.
‘‘Little Miss Sunshine’’ went on to gross $60 million domestically, a huge success for a quirky independent tale produced on a modest $7.5 million budget.
After Fox Searchlight bought ‘‘Little Miss Sunshine’’ for $10.5 million at Sundance, the festival’s most expensive acquisition ever, the filmmakers felt they had reached the pinnacle.
‘‘Basically, our hope, our fantasy was to sell the film at Sundance and get our money back,’’ said producer David Friendly. ‘‘To us, we thought, we thought we’ll never have another night like this. This was sort of the end of the journey. Well, in fact it was just the beginning of the journey. Everything that’s come after that has been a complete surprise. A shock, but a beautiful shock.’’
Gosling earned a best-actor nomination for ‘‘Half Nelson,’’ which cast the Sundance veteran as an inspiring inner-city teacher battling his own drug problem.
One of the biggest nonfiction film hits ever, ‘‘An Inconvenient Truth’’ earned a documentary Oscar nomination, as did ‘‘Iraq in Fragments,’’ a portrait of the country under U.S. occupation that premiered at Sundance last year.
Melissa Etheridge received a best-song nomination for ‘‘I Need to Wake Up,’’ written for ‘‘An Inconvenient Truth.’’ The magician drama ‘‘The Illusionist,’’ another 2006 Sundance premiere, had a cinematography nomination, while last year’s Sundance entry ‘‘West Bank Story’’ is competing for the Oscar for live-action short film.
‘‘An Inconvenient Truth’’ introduced Gore’s passionate case about the dangers of global warming to a broad audience. After losing the 2000 presidential race, Gore devoted himself to traveling the world presenting an elaborate slide show arguing that fossil fuels and other emissions were trapping solar heat that could cause a catastrophic global meltdown.
At Sundance last year, Gore said the film offered the chance to take his case to a wholesale audience rather than ‘‘doing it retail a few hundred people at a time.’’
The acclaim for ‘‘An Inconvenient Truth’’ that began at Sundance helped make Gore’s hope a reality.
‘‘What’s great about it is thousands more people are going to hear about global warming,’’ said the film’s director, Davis Guggenheim. ‘‘Everyone who has seen this movie was pretty shaken. It shook me to the core, because it’s truth.’’
Sundance once was a gathering that highlighted little films that might find a bit of commercial attention in the real world, such as Quentin Tarantino’s ‘‘Reservoir Dogs’’ or Kevin Smith’s ‘‘Clerks.’’
In the last decade, though, the festival has proven an incubator for some mainstream hits and films that catch on with Oscar voters, among them ‘‘In the Bedroom,’’ whose five nominations included best picture and acting honors for Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson and Marisa Tomei; ‘‘You Can Count on Me,’’ ‘‘Hustle & Flow’’ and ‘‘Junebug,’’ which earned acting nominations for Laura Linney, Terrence Howard and Amy Adams; and documentary nominee ‘‘Super Size Me.’’
It’s too early to say how films at the current Sundance festival, which runs through Sunday, will fare in the next Oscar campaign. But John Cusack already has shown a tender new side as a grieving father in ‘‘Grace Is Gone,’’ a drama that could bring him awards attention come fall.
‘‘Half Nelson’’ actor Gosling, whose career took off after he starred in Sundance’s 2001 top prize winner ‘‘The Believer,’’ said the Oscar success of recent Sundance flicks is a sign of audience hunger for richer stories than mainstream Hollywood typically offers.
‘‘I feel like people are ready for something else,’’ Gosling said. ‘‘I think it’s extremely encouraging for me, because these are the films I want to make and the films I want to see. Something where monetary value doesn’t keep people from seeing its potential emotional value.’’