The Sundance Film Festival came to a close this weekend, with a bang for at least one documentary. Blood Brother, an off-the-radar, donations-only financed film, about an American who develops a touching bond with a HIV-positive children while in India, won both the Audience Award as well as the Grand Jury Prize, a very rare feat. It would appear that Blood Brother is on its way toward much bigger things (distribution deals! Box office! The Oscars!), but, as we’ve noted here many times, there is rarely a 1:1 connection between what happens at a festival and what happens in the real world.

Festivals are, partly, hype-puffing factories built on the very notion that they exist to help audiences and buyers become aware of films that they would otherwise not know about. Blood Brother has yet to score a distributor, but I’m happy to report that its director, Steve Hoover, has managed to keep his wits about him. I caught him at the Salt Lake City airport, on his way from Sundance to the Santa Barbara Film Festival, where Blood Brother is screening Tuesday night.

“It’s pretty crazy,” Hoover said on the phone about his film’s rave reception. “It feels good and exciting, but I’m still processing it all.”

Hoover says that the film hasn’t received any “solid offers” yet, but that there are potential buyers.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I helped contribute to the hype with this earlier posting of Sundance Senior Programmer David Courier’s laudatory description of the film:

It’s an incredibly moving and inspiring debut feature, about a young American man who moves to India where he works with kids in need, that we knew nothing about before it was submitted to us. If anyone doubts that their film could ever get into Sundance without any connections, they should think again. This film just rose up among the thousands of submissions. The cream really does rise to the top.

But good buzz is a double-edged sword. Distributors, not always the smartest bunch, are sometimes aware of this, which is why the most impressive sales this year to come out of Sundance had undeniably commercial hooks. For instance, the music doc genre has a strong precedent of success. Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer, about the Russian activist punks, History of the Eagles, about the band, and Twenty Feet from Stardom, about back-up singers, each got snapped up quick. I’d guess that the film with the biggest prospect of breaking out is Blackfish, about killer whales (or Orcas, to some of us) in captivity. The film about a loveable creature, usually an audience favorite, was bought by Magnolia, which has a strong nose for what non-fiction works theatrically. (Cutie and the Boxer, which falls into the endearing artist category, also sold, as did some political and socially relevant docs, including Dirty Wars, about the U.S.’s covert wars around the world.)

Hoover says he’s remaining “sober” about his film’s prospects, and he knows that “we are going to have to continue to work hard” on placing the film with the right people in the right way. He’s got sales agents (Preferred Content and WME) and he says that “people have given us solid advice on how to proceed.”

He’s pretty happy to have accomplished his first goal of “telling this story.” Now he’s got his eyes set on the next one; “getting as many people as possible to see the film,” he says.

I can see the obstacles in Blood Brother’s way; it’s a film about the third world without recognizable people attached and lacking a timely subject. There are not enough favorable comps (Born into Brothels was an anomaly!) and not enough pegs and hooks. Still, with Sundance providing wind in its sails, and some high profile friends (Morgan Spurlock called it, “A truly beautiful film about the power of love”) joining in, it’s got momentum, which counts for a lot.

And, from what I hear, it’s not just important, it’s also very good storytelling. Let’s keep it in our sights, and see where it goes from here.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen