By Amy Nicholson
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"The excitement to buy is long past at the festival," said Tom Bernard, the co-president/co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics, one of the only studio-funded art-house labels still standing. "A few years ago, it was sort of this Wild West, where all of these sales agents rented these giant houses and had their whole legal machine in the backroom, where you'd bang out a deal fighting with four other people, and the middlemen would continue to raise the ante, and you'd walk home and go, 'What did I just do?' That's over."
Bernard cites 2008's Hamlet 2 — "that crazy movie that Focus bought" — as the prick that burst the bubble. "Hamlet 2 went for $10 million. $10 million used to be the number. That's gone." This year's biggest sale, Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right, reportedly sold to Focus for $5 million. "And that was an all-night bidding event," Bernard said. "I don't know if that pays for the giant house with the legal machine."
Sony Pictures Classics likes to focus on promoting auteurs, and Bernard said their efforts to buy at this year's festival were frustrated by "middlemen" who work on commission — "like people selling houses" — and keep directors out of the process. "We met very few filmmakers at the festival. We met a lot of their middlemen. We made a big offer on the Cholodenko film, and we were never allowed to have access to her. Which I find astounding — you make a seven-figure offer, and you never talk to the filmmaker? That is the opposite of what the festival is supposed to be about."
In recent years, the festival map has become more decentralized, and filmmakers who might have been disenfranchised by Sundance found festivals with a smaller buyer contingent, such as SXSW and the Los Angeles Film Fest, to be valuable alternative premiere platforms for low- (and no-) budget indies. Some of the most talked-about American indies of the past few years (Funny Ha Ha, Four Eyed Monsters, Medicine for Melancholy, Paranormal Activity, to name a few of the Independent Spirit Award nominees and winners) never screened at Sundance. Of course, a lot of fine micro-indie films (Humpday, Goliath, Momma's Man, You Wont Miss Me) did premiere here, but doing so amid the nip-slipping celebutantes who have become synonymous (fairly or otherwise) with Sundance's dark side may have put them at a disadvantage.
"The low-budget films tended to not get the attention they deserved," Sundance Director of Programming Trevor Groth admitted before this year's festival began. And so Groth and festival director John Cooper — both longtime Sundance programmers promoted this year after the departure of Sundance chief Geoff Gilmore — killed Spectrum, a sidebar that served as a catchall for films that for whatever reason didn't fit in competition (like Old Joy, one of the most acclaimed American indies of the last decade), and created NEXT, a new sidebar dedicated to showcasing very low-budget movies. Groth says NEXT is part of a "long-term plan" for the festival to reflect, and eventually correct, the tumult of the indie-film industry.
"There's got to be a realistic expectation for what these films can make. I think it's getting to a healthy place, where films are going to be made for a modest budget, they're going to be sold for a little bit more, and they're going to make a little bit more than that." Groth acknowledges that for a lot of tiny-budget films, the best-case scenario is that "they're not going to be sold, they're going to be self-distributed."
The good news is that the roster of micro-indie Sundance films finding sustainable success with self-motivated, nontraditional releases grows every year. Good Dick, which attracted mixed reviews when it screened at Sundance in 2008, has more than made back its six-figure budget on an all-stops release strategy that included a brief run at the Nuart, Netflix rentals and video on demand. Nolan Gallagher, whose Gravitas Ventures brokered Good Dick's on-demand deals, says the smaller a film's budget, the better a candidate it is for emerging markets like VOD. "I tell a filmmaker who spent $100,000 on their movie that I can make them $100,000, and they're thrilled. I tell the maker of a $4 million film I can make them $100,000, and they say, 'My heart just sank.' "
This year Sundance made a gesture toward connecting truly indie films to emerging distribution formats by setting up a deal with YouTube, through which three films world-premiering in the NEXT section (Bass Ackwards, Homewrecker and One Too Many Mornings), as well as two films from last year's festival (Children of Invention and documentary-Oscar frontrunner The Cove), were available for online rental for 10 days, at $3.99 a pop, with the bulk of the grosses going directly to the filmmakers. The marriage of films to viewing format and platform proved to be awkward. The YouTube audience is used to getting a very specific kind of media (bloopers, exhibitionist performance, documented reality) for free. The rental program asked viewers to extend their attention spans to embrace ultrasincere low-budget filmmaking — and to pay for the privilege. In the end, none of the films racked up more than 500 rentals, and most of them attracted nasty comments from the YouTube faithful. "How about a preview before I spend my four bucks?" user midnoon35 wrote, in a typical complaint. "Just because it's indi [sic] doesn't mean it's any good."
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