Niche cablers corner indie pic market

Strategies, substance separate artsy channels

In a crowded field of cable channels, IFC and Sundance have the same goal: to deliver the sometimes excellent, sometimes obscure, arthouse goods.

While IFC is pursuing original content for its sked, Sundance is pursuing deals away from the TV screen, focusing on branding and trying to get as many corporate links as possible.

The divergent strategies reflect a cable world where targeting niche auds is a messy business, one without a proven formula for success.

While neither Sundance nor IFC can yet be classified as a winner, the numbers show promise.

Sundance is a pay channel with 17.2 million subs and availability in 70 million homes. It was the only pay channel, save HBO, to show growth last quarter.

Nine years into the game, IFC boasts more than 30 million subs and remains the first and largest web dedicated to indiephiles.

Sundance boasts important corporate parents: Robert Redford is part owner, as is Universal Studios and Showtime Networks.

The Viacom connection has set the pace for the cabler out of the gate.

“Sundance recommends” displays at Blockbuster Video are mandatory and have paid off: Titles bearing the Sundance moniker outperform the same titles placed in the general rental pool.

Sundance’s home entertainment arm had its first title, “Scotland, PA,” move more than 75,000 units, resulting in $1 million in sales. Eight titles have been set for 2003, and the company plans to step up the pace for 15 titles next year.

“It’s got very strong positioning in a very targeted area,” says Sanford Bernstein analyst Michael Nathanson. “In the cable world, you really want to build the best vertically integrated machine that you can — but it has to be driven by penetration of the core channel. Their challenge is getting more distribution.”

Rather than ramping up corporate partners to expand its brand, the Independent Film Channel is unveiling an increased number of originals that broaden its indie niche in order to draw auds.

Bravo transplants — Rainbow Media entertainment services prexy Kathy Dore, exec VP-G.M. Ed Carroll and director of production and development Debbie DeMontreux — have mandated fresh content in hopes of achieving the same excitement “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” has for Bravo.

Says IFC programming director Alison Bourke: “Our new originals aren’t just about subject matter. They’re also about who’s behind the camera and whose voice it is, which allows us to both expand and remain focused on independent cinema.”

The channel has the benefit of being able to pluck from its inhouse stable of marquee talent — courtesy of the channel’s production and distribution units behind such films as “Y tu mama tambien” and “Camp” — to anchor its programming.

Projects in the hopper include:

  • “Slasher,” director John Landis’ first-ever foray into documentary filmmaking centered on the offbeat world of barrel-bottom used-car sales.

  • “In the Company of Women,” a doc from the producer of “A Decade Under the Influence” that explores the roles of women in independent film. Pic toplines Jodie Foster, Marisa Tomei, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rosie Perez, Lili Taylor, Patricia Clarkson and Illeana Douglas.

  • “In Search of Ted Demme” a tribute from scribes-exec producers Denis Leary and Richard LaGravenese (“Decade”).

  • Nanette Burstein’s doc-style series “Film School,” which will trail a group of NYU grad students working on their thesis films.

Sundance, meanwhile, is using its sway in the film community to draw attention back to the cable channel.

This summer came the latest initiative: the Sundance Film Series. Four films unspooled in 10 cities for two weeks apiece. Titles ranged from “In This World” by Michael Winterbottom to Charles Busch’s campy “Die Mommie Die.”

Series was the first that Sundance embarked upon without handholding from its parent corporations, but it knew enough to bring in Newmarket Films and corporate sponsors including Loews Cineplex Entertainment.

“Dopamine” which opened Oct. 10, will be the first film to have experienced every stage of Sundance — from workshopping in labs, to screening at the fest, and in 2005, broadcast on the channel.

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