Sundance: New Trails To Finding An Audience


PARK CITY, Utah — The starkest picture to emerge from the opening days of this year’s Sundance Film Festival may be of an independent film business forced to stretch in untested directions because its old distribution model no longer works.

Times Topics: Sundance Film Festival (Park City, Utah

Standard operating procedure over the years at Sundance, the cinematic bazaar now under way in this resort town, has been simple: show your film and hope it plays well enough to attract a theatrical distributor or, if the movie is particularly small and arty, a video-on-demand deal.

If no deal happens — and this is where more than 75 percent of Sundance offerings landed last year — you go home and try Internet downloads, DVD and foreign television sales.

But even that risky blueprint is being redrafted. With more art-house theaters closing and most of the big studios no longer interested in distributing specialty films, a theatrical release is becoming increasingly hard to secure. So some filmmakers are trying to turn that system on its head, using Sundance not just as a sales tool but also as a platform for immediate digital delivery.

“We just want to encourage people to throw the traditional model out the window,” said Michael Mohan, the writer-director of “One Too Many Mornings,” a coming-of-age comedy that had its premiere here on Friday.

Simultaneously, Mr. Mohan let users at download the movie for $10 and started selling DVDs for $20. For $35, customers get a DVD, a poster and a piece of the sofa featured in the film. Mr. Mohan is also selling the theatrical rights via the Web site for $100,000. “Forget a bidding war,” he said. “Whoever gets to their laptop the fastest gets it.”

YouTube introduced its long-awaited movie rental option at this year’s festival by offering five Sundance films as soon as they had their premieres. The rentals — including “One Too Many Mornings” and “Bass Ackwards,” another film that bypassed the theatrical window — will cost $3.99.

And for the first time, Sundance will make films available in about 40 million homes through cable and satellite on-demand services simultaneously with premieres. The program, Sundance Selects, includes “Daddy Longlegs,” about being torn between adulthood and childhood.

“We are on a march to make more of this occur,” said Joshua Sapan, chief executive of Rainbow Media, the subsidiary of Cablevision that owns the Sundance Channel, AMC and IFC Entertainment.

As expected in this economy, deals at the festival have been slow to take off. But distributors started to nibble over the weekend, particularly on films like “Catfish,” an unconventional documentary about a photographer who is drawn into a mystery through Facebook. Also winning sales attention was “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil,” a Canadian comedy about college students who mistake a pair of backwoods rustics for psychotic killers.

Mr. Sapan, who helped create Sundance Selects, called the traditional distribution system for indie films “completely restrictive and choking” and said digital technologies — like his own company’s video-on-demand business — would continue to “dramatically increase the footprint of availability for these films.”

For filmmakers, the hope is broader than making some fast money by tapping into Sundance’s publicity wave. Perhaps one of these movies will catch fire with indie fans and theatrical distributors will come calling.

“There’s no reason it can’t go to theaters after it’s already available online; they are two different groups of people,” Mr. Mohan said. “I know a lot of theater owners aren’t into it, but maybe somebody out there is that progressive.”

Of course, it is easy for him to take a nontraditional approach. He made “One Too Many Mornings” for just $50,000. While on-demand services and Web sales are becoming a substantial revenue stream, more expensive specialty endeavors continue to need theatrical distribution to have any hope of turning a profit.

Failure to reach theaters would be a big problem for a film like “Blue Valentine,” a $5 million drama that had its premiere on Sunday and stars Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. “If you’ve made a movie for $5 million and you’re only doing a video-on-demand deal, your investors are getting killed,” said Jay Cohen, head of film financing at the Gersh Agency, a Hollywood talent agency. (Luckily for the producers behind “Blue Valentine,” it is one of the festival’s hottest acquisition targets.)

At some point, however, anything is better than nothing. By Mr. Sapan’s estimation, the average production cost of a feature film submitted to Sundance is roughly $1 million, which would put the total cost of films submitted this year at about $3.7 billion. Only about $120 million worth make the schedule, and of those less than $30 million worth will find their way to market through the traditional system.

It’s so competitive that specialty filmmakers really have to put their distribution caps on before they even start to shoot,” said Reed Martin, the author of “The Reel Truth,” a guide to independent production.

Specialty filmmakers are increasingly turning to companies like 42West, a public relations firm in New York, to help them navigate. “To optimize Sundance as a theatrical release, marketing prior to the festival is crucial,” said Amanda Lundberg, a 42West partner.

Perhaps this is the biggest question: if Sundance is a laboratory for the broader movie business, is mixing up the distribution cycle also the future for more mainstream releases?

“It probably does send Hollywood some signals,” Mr. Sapan said. “But remember that most of this material we are talking about — specialty film — doesn’t have broad commerciality as a goal.”

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