Beyond theatrical: Sundance Institute sells shorts via the Web

Hundreds of independent films come to Park City with high hopes of scoring a distribution deal. Perhaps a dozen or so end up actually grasping the theatrical grail.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the line. Traditional ancillaries such as cable and homevid are still kicking — and services such as Netflix, which picked up “Sherrybaby” at the fest last year, are particularly focused on creating alternative distribution options for indies.

But when it comes to the nascent digital downloading technologies, it’s short films that look to have the most to gain in the near future.

The Sundance Institute, which has streamed festival shorts on its Web site since 2001, is going a step further this year by offering 45 selected shorts for sale on iTunes this month.

Sundance’sĀ iTunes deal is similar to another recent pact that brought last year’s Academy Award-nominated shorts to iPods. The five Oscar shorts have so far generated more than 100,000 downloads. And at $1.99 a pop — minus the 30% iTunes takes off the top — that means revenue for filmmakers, who can add that to other ancillary income.

In the case of the Sundance shorts, also priced at $1.99, more than a buck a download goes into filmmakers’ pockets.

“We’re still more supporting (filmmakers) than monetizing them,” admits Sundance’s director of programming John Cooper, though he hopes the fest can help “create a marketplace where, basically, filmmakers are self-distributing by using the Sundance brand as a calling card.”

If Sundance’s iTunes pairing proves successful, Cooper says they might mine back catalogues of festival shorts or branch into features or docs.

So far, though, coin is relatively limited. “Right now, the revenue streams from those things (like downloading) are minuscule when compared to traditional revenue streams,” says dealmaking vet John Sloss.

Revenue for feature films from the online world may take some time, too. So, filmmakers continue to fixate on theatrical deals.

“People don’t give up their theatrical aspirations very quickly,” underlines fest topper Geoffrey Gilmore, who points out that more films were released in cinemas in 2006 than in the past 40 years.

“The question I always come back to is, I don’t care what the mechanisms are, tell me how it gets marketed,” Gilmore adds.

“While theatrical remains central, it is part of a larger puzzle, even for small films,” says Jean-Michel Dissard, associate producer of Sundance hit “Raising Victor Vargas” (which started life as a short). “Producers and distributors have no excuse to not look beyond the established paradigm around theatrical releases.”

Dissard, who has “Ezra” at the fest this year, says he’s “made unusual deals with airlines or hotels to show some of (his short) films.”

Meanwhile, execs do admit iTunes and MySpace are great places to promote films and democratize the viewing experience. Indeed the iPod revolution might also herald new viewing habits.

“Who knows if the 90-minute format will be predominant in 10 years?” asks Rosanne Korenberg, sales rep/producer of 2006 Sundance pic “Half Nelson.”

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