With visions of seven-figure theatrical deals dancing in their heads, filmmakers headed for the Sundance Film Festival aren’t losing too much sleep about how their pics will play on TV. Ask them again in a month.
For every film that scores a theatrical, DVD and television pact with a mini-major, many more sign theatrical-only deals with indie distributors, while others secure no deal whatsoever. For those lower-profile titles, a cable broadcast is often the best way to reach an audience and recoup investment.
And that’s where outlets such as the Sundance Channel come into play. Since its inception in 1996, the cabler has been a significant venue for fest titles.
“We’re very focused on the classic Sundance indie type of experience,” says Christian Vesper, the channel’s VP of acquisitions, program planning and scheduling. “In my opinion, the other channels that acquire films for broadcast have a very different point of view.”
In 2006 alone, the network will be airing 21 features from Sundance 2005 (14 narrative, seven docs), including Ira Sachs’ grand jury prize-winning “Forty Shades of Blue,” Gregg Araki’s fest fave “Mysterious Skin” and Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy,” which won the grand jury prize at Cannes 2004.
Vesper estimates the channel will air about 200 features this year, meaning acquisitions that have screened at the festival rep at least 10% of his feature programming.
Most of the channel deals happen after Sundance has wrapped, and films screen the following year. But there are exceptions. The channel’s deal for “DiG!,” the grand jury prize-winning doc from 2004, got closed in Park City, as did the 2005 doc “New York Doll.”
Vesper says he acquires films in one of two ways: from small theatrical distributors such as Strand or Zeitgeist, which have acquired all the rights to a film but don’t have an output deal with a network, or directly from a film’s sales reps.
Sundance Channel normally pays less than $50,000 for film acquisitions. On the high end, titles rarely run over $100,000.
“Since we’re a TV channel, we’re not necessarily the first thing on every filmmaker’s mind, and that’s fine,” says Vesper.
The channel also has expanded its operations to include documentary financing. Two ’06 doc titles — Lian Lunson’s “Leonard Cohen I’m Your Man” (Spectrum) and Yoav Shamir’s “Five Days” (Intl. Competition) — were funded and pre-bought by the network.
The relationship between the festival and the channel isn’t easily defined. Along with sharing the Sundance brand, the channel is jointly owned by festival founder Robert Redford, Showtime Networks and NBC Universal, and the channel’s original programming department airs coverage of the festival with a daily half-hour show. There is not, however, any formal or first-look agreement between the orgs on festival films.
“There’s a church-and-state separation between us, and at the festival we don’t get any special treatment in terms of our dealmaking abilities,” says Vesper. “That being said, we do have strong personal and professional relationships with the programmers. During and after the fest we hear their opinions and get their input, but in the end we are separate entities.”