SEARCHING FOR SUGAR MAN won the World Audience Prize in 2012.

In the lead-up to Sundance, I got to wondering how its documentary awards correlate to box office success. I looked at winners from the past 10 years in the categories of grand jury prize and audience award for both US and World competitions; and drew theatrical sales data from Box Office Mojo.

My question: how many grossed over $1 million at the box office? 

The results:

Grand Jury Prize: three of the past 10 winners – Restrepo (2010); Why We Fight (2005); Capturing the Friedmans (2003).

Audience Award: four of the past 10 winners – Buck (2011); Waiting for Superman (2010); Murderball (2005); Born Into Brothels (2004).

World Cinema Jury Prize: this has only existed for seven years , with one winner breaking $1 million – Man on Wire (2008).

World Cinema Audience Award: from my reading of the Sundance archives, this award has only happened eight of the past 10 years, yielding 4 titles that broke $1 million –  Searching for Sugar Man (2012); Senna (2011); In the Shadow of the Moon (2007); The Corporation (2004).

Unexpectedly, that makes the World Cinema Audience Award for Documentary the most statistically reliable at producing a box office success.

Mind you, the two most successful documentaries to come out of Sundance in this time period were films that played out of competition – An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and March of the Penguins (2005).

In addition, there are at least 20 other documentaries launching out of Sundance that didn’t garner the top jury or audience prizes, but grossed over $1 million: Queen of Versailles (2012);  Beats, Rhymes & Life;  Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times (2011); Catfish; Exit Through the Gift ShopJoan Rivers: A Piece of Work (2010); Good HairThe September Issue (2009); Gonzo (2008); No End in Sight (2007); Who Killed the Electric Car?Wordplay (2006); The ArtistocratsEnron: The Smartest Guys in the RoomGrizzly Man; Rize (2005); Control RoomMetallica: Some Kind of MonsterRiding GiantsSuper Size Me (2004).

In 2013, four directors who belong to this elite club return to Sundance with new feature projects: Alex Gibney (We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks); Sebastian Junger (Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington); R.J. Cutler (The World According to Dick Cheney) and Jehane Noujaim (The Square).

If anyone detects gaps or errors in my conclusions, I welcome corrections. Here’s a round-up of past winners. (* marks the grossers over $1 million.)

Grand Jury Prize Documentary

The House I Live In (2012)

How to Die In Oregon (2011)

*Restrepo (2010)

We Live in Public (2009)

Trouble the Water (2008)

Manda Bala (Send a Bullet) (2007)

God Grew Tired of Us (2006)

*Why We Fight (2005)

Dig! (2004)

*Capturing the Friedmans (2003)

Audience Award Documentary

The Invisible War (2012)

*Buck (2011)

*Waiting for Superman (2010)

The Cove (2009)

Fuel (2008)

Hear and Now (2007)

God Grew Tired of Us (2006)

*Murderball (2005)

*Born Into Brothels (2004)

My Flesh and Blood (2003)

World Cinema Jury Prize Documentary

The Law in These Parts (2012)

Hell and Back Again (2011)

The Red Chapel (2010)

Rough Aunties (2009)

*Man On Wire (2008)

Enemies of Happiness (2007)

In the Pit (2006)

[No record] (2005)

[No record] (2004)

[No record] (2003)

World Cinema Audience Award Documentary

*Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

*Senna (2011)

Waste Land (2010)

Afghan Star (2009)

Recycle (2008)

*In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)

De Nadie (2006)

[No record] (2005)

*The Corporation (2004)

[No record] (2003)


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