Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sundance Film Festival 2010 Report

This year’s Sundance Film Festival offered a number of opportunities for independent filmmakers to grasp the quickly evolving world of distribution. The festival’s programming for documentary and narrative filmmakers by Cara Mertes, director of the Documentary Fund and her staff featured a unique distribution panel provocatively titled “The Doctors Are In.” The panel was organized and moderated by independent film consultant Peter Broderick (former president of Next Wave Pictures) and Eugene Hernandez, editor and co-founder of IndieWire, an online filmmaker business journal.

The feelings of frustration and confusion concerning the changing distribution avenues for independent films was summed up eloquently by Broderick, “Sundance 2010 is a turning point in independent distribution.” The collapse of DVD sales, the declining theatrical box office, and the economic meltdown have forced independent filmmakers look for new models for distribution. “The Doctors Are In” broke the old form of Sundance panels, symbolizing the adapting strategies of distribution. Instead of the usual 5 executives from Hollywood studio “classic” distributors, Peter and Eugene choose 15 panelists, separated into 3 teams of 5 people, each focusing on a different topic: Tradition, Digital and Event.

Panelists included producer and new marketing consultant Richard Abramowitz, filmmaker Sandi DuBowski (“Trembling Before God”), filmmaker Cora Olson (“Good Dick”), producer Ted Hope and filmmaker Lance Weiler of Workbook Project. On hand were broadcasters and distributors including Arianna Bocco of IFC Films’, Fluent Entertainment’s Andy Bohn, William Morris Endeavor’s Liesl Copland, Cinetic Rights Management’s Matt Dentler, Jon Fougner-Facebook, B-Side’s Chris Hyams, Zipline Entertainment’s Marian Koltai Levine, Tim League of Austin Based the Alamo Draft House, Tom Quinn of Magnolia Pictures, and one of the most sought after new distributors YouTube’s Sarah Pollock.

The first panel “Tradition” featured WME’s Liesl Copland , who opened the discussion with the film he represents, “Blue Valentine,” a “star driven” feature film that was made for under $5,000,000. To recoup this amount Copland said “We may need a number of partners to maximize the potential of the film.” While he is negotiating for a traditional theatrical opening he said they are considering the possibility of a simultaneous VOD release in order to maximize the film’s opening sales.

VOD or video on demand was the main topic of the first panel. Many of the panelists felt that VOD was evolving as a major source of revenue for filmmakers. Magnolia’s Tom Quinn used the example of “The House of the Devil” which only grossed $100,000 after spending $200,000 on the opening. However Tom said that by adding VOD the film has now grossed over $1.3 million to date. The box office may have lost money but it promoted the film which resulted in much larger VOD sales.

The second panel to take the main stage “Digital” focused almost entirely on YouTube’s Sara Pollock and Facebook’s Jon Fougner. YouTube just launched its new pay per view VOD service with three films premiering at this year’s festival. Each film was available on YouTube for $3.99. While each film had only been rented 200-300 times in the first few days over $10,000 in revenue was generated. Facebook’s Fougner talked about using their platform to build your audience through social media, and gain revenue through targeted ad sales.

“Event,” the third panel opened with Richard Abramovitz, whose company developed the successful marketing strategy for “Anvil: The Story of Anvil”. Abramovitz said, “The goal of the new company (Area23a), is to acquire social issue and music films and the idea is to combine event and screening and you can target those subjects’ fans,” He elaborated, “We create this army who proselytize to an audience and it spreads the word.” Anvil the band, and “Anvil” the movie are still touring successfully together generating more income together than they could separately.

”Sandi DuBowski, the filmmaker whose documentary “Trembling Before God” has been a major hit on the festival and college circuits generating over $1,000,000 used a similar strategy creating an event at each screening. “I think there’s an explosion of opportunity,” said DuBowski, “There’s a convergence of strategy in the last five years. We’ve had a decade of building to turn movies into movements.”

The consensus of the three sets of panelists seemed to be that filmmakers and their distributors have to be more resourceful than ever, employing new tactics and strategies to reach niche or micro audiences in this time of media fragmentation.

You may have thought that the 300 plus filmmakers who attended
“The Doctors Are In” symposium would have had enough of distribution talk. However two hours later Peter Broderick hosted a non-Sundance film distribution “Clinic” attended by over 100 filmmakers. Here the key word was “hybrid distribution.” The Clinic began with the case study of the successful low budget feature “Good Dick.” They decided not to go the traditional theatrical release route. Instead the filmmakers chose to go directly to their primary audience, college students. They attended the National Association of Campus Activities conference and pitched the programmers at virtually every college and university in the country. They offered the programmers the film for $1,000 to $2,000 per screening. For $5,000 the filmmakers toured with the film speaking before and after each event. Using this strategy “Good Dick” netted over $500,000 for the filmmakers. Not bad for a movie that cost only $200,000 to make.

Peter called on a number of other filmmakers to present their own successful strategies for hybrid distribution. Filmmaker Jon Reiss (“Bomb It”) has written frequently on the hybrid distribution strategy he used on “Bomb It.” He broke up all of the rights and signed separate deal for each one. Under the old model a filmmaker would be offered a take it or leave it deal in which a distributor acquired all rights, theatrical, home video/DVD, semi-theatrical, broadcast (domestic and international) and VOD. If theatrical lost money as it usually does the distributor was taken care of from home video/DVD sales. If not fully recouped the distributor would continue to capture income from the other income streams. This meant that the filmmaker would not receive a penny from his film. Called “cross collateralization” it is the bane of this new generation of filmmakers.

Filmmakers cannot rely on public television and private foundations to fund their films any more. Today, filmmakers must create viable income streams to make films and pay back their investors. The consensus of both panels was that filmmakers must start building their audiences before they even commence production and use social media to exploit this new form of hybrid filmmaking. And no one can do this better than the filmmakers themselves.

Jed Riffe, Independent filmmaker and interactive producer
“Ishi, the Last Yahi,” “Who Owns the Past?,” “Waiting to Inhale,” “California and the American Dream” series.
Sundance Documentary Fund Program Fellow