PARK CITY, UTAH (TheStreet) -- It might be the sun swept snow or the well-dressed crowds impatiently filing into theaters, but almost every year at the Sundance Film Festival a well-known distributor gets a case of "mountain fever" and spends millions of dollars on a film that all but flops.
This year may be different.
Coming out of the 2013 festival, Fox Searchlight paid almost $10 million for The Way, Way Back, a coming of age film starring Sam Rockwell that looked to be a charmer, possibly even the next Little Miss Sunshine. Fox Searchlight, the independent distribution arm of 21st Century Fox (FOXA), struck gold with Little Miss Sunshine, the hit of the 2006 Sundance Festival and was looking for a repeat performance.
But by the end of the year, The Way, Way Back had failed to catch fire. Box-office sales totaled just $23 million, according to Nash Information Services, a modest sum for a company like Fox even when accounting for television distribution and video-on-demand revenue.
"Little Miss Sunshine obviously paid off handsomely for everyone," John Sloss, an entertainment lawyer and founder of Cinetic Media who represented the movie's creators in its deal with Fox Searchlight, said in a phone interview. "Since then, there are a lot of people trying to capture that same lightning in a bottle, and maybe Searchlight thought they had that with Way, Way Back."
Relativity Media also made headlines a year ago when the film distributor agreed to pay $4 million for Don Jon in addition to $25 million to guarantee a wide theatrical release. Yet box-office sales for Don Jon, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson and Julianne Moore, were $26 million as of mid-January. Similarly, Sony Pictures Worldwide paid between $4 million and $5 million for Austenland, a film that has generated a mere $2.1 million at the box-office, according to Nash.