Sundance 2011

To say the film industry has seen a few changes in production, distribution and exhibition in recent years is a huge understatement. Technology such as HD DSLRs, 800 ASA-rated sensors, all-in-one studio desktop NLE systems and online movie distribution (Netflix, Hulu) have all made it possible for filmmakers to produce a professional-looking movie and distribute it to a global audience—at the cost of craft services on a typical studio movie. Film festivals have showcased the cutting edge of digital technology, but due to a rough economy and the emergence of web video, a lot of the smaller, more regional festivals have recently bit the dust. Still, for most indie filmmakers, the film-festival circuit remains the best and most realistic route to get your movie screened in front of a live audience.

Now in its 27th year, the Sundance Film Festival is considered the mecca of independent film. The good news at Sundance 2011 was the return of acquisitions executives looking for the next indie blockbuster, because at last year’s festival, several films—Blue Valentine, The Kids Are All Right, Winter’s Bone and Exit Through the Gift Shop—generated decent box office returns and also nabbed coveted Oscar® nominations. At this year’s festival, an impressive 24 feature films were sold, including J.C. Chandor’s Margin Call to Roadside Attractions and Lionsgate, Matthew Chapman’s The Ledge to IFC Films and Gavin Wiesen’s Homework to FOX Searchlight. The biggest deal of the festival was Jesse Peretz’s My Idiot Brother, starring Paul Rudd, sold to The Weinstein Company for a minimum guarantee of $6 million to $7 million, and a $15 million P&A commitment for theatrical release.

At this year’s New Frontier program, photographer/filmmaker Vincent Laforet premiered The Story Beyond the Still, an online video contest sponsored by Canon that was a collaboration between numerous filmmakers working with Canon EOS 5D Mark II cameras.

Although there were many deals signed between filmmakers and distributors, the biggest sales buzz at this year’s festival was generated by director Kevin Smith, who sold his latest feature Red State to himself for $20. Huh? Well, by owning the negative of his film, Smith plans to take his movie on a 15-city road-show tour with the only advertising being word of mouth. But with more than 1.7 million Twitter followers and over 400,000 friends on his Facebook page, Smith might have a big enough fan base to recoup some of his $4 million budget.

“Indie film isn’t dead; it just grew up,” said Smith during the Q&A at his premiere. “It’s just Indie Film 2.0 now. In Indie Film 2.0, we don’t let them sell our movie; we sell our movie ourselves.”

A risky move, but I think it will become a common trend for indie filmmakers who are no longer interested in giving their distributors all the rights to their films, especially online distribution.

But since your average indie filmmaker doesn’t have 1.7 million Twitter followers, what’s the next path? Most are betting on the Internet, and Sundance has been making moves to broaden its presence on the web. Last year, the Sundance Institute and YouTube made 12 shorts from this year’s festival available, as well as eight shorts from earlier festivals. The shorts can be screened in the YouTube screening room (www.youtube.com/ytscreeningroom), which is a curated program and includes past Oscar®-winning shorts. Since the festival circuit is sometimes the best way for an independent film to be seen in different cities, the Sundance Institute has created Sundance Film Festival USA, which is a program that selects a few films from the 2011 program and then screens them in nine different cities.

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