Players go into Sundance festival with sense of hope

As execs look back on a tough year and warm up for another Sundance, a genuine sense of excitement and optimism seems to be invading the indie world.

Despite some evidence of the lingering hard times for some, plenty of execs in New York at the Gotham Awards last week exuded a sort of quiet confidence.

Many were looking ahead to the Park City, Utah, gathering, predicting it would be a tighter, better festival.

“Professionally, I’m excited. Good, exciting films are out there to be discovered,” said independent film vet Steven Raphael. “Indie film is still as passionate, just with more hurdles. You have to do more with less.”

He pointed to the mounting box office success of 2009 Sundance darling “Precious” and noted it “is good for us all.”

As a strategic consultant for pics such as “The Maid” — another Sundance premiere this year and winner of the breakthrough actor kudo (for Catalina Saavedra) at the Gothams — Raphael also reminded that, “We all have to be more creative in the way that we distribute and market. With the indie divisions being shut down left and right, filmmakers are taking (distribution) responsibilities into their own hands more.”

He suggests P&A should be part of the overall budget of the film: “At least for a modest New York opening in order to hopefully parlay that into strong ancillary deals.”

Rethinking distribution and budgets and taking a fresh look at how the various pieces of financing come together for indies are ongoing topics of discussion.

In Los Angeles at Variety’s Future of Film Summit this week, producer Michael London and other panelists also said they were “optimistic.” The current U.S. distribution dilemma could be sorted out in the coming year. More distribs will enter the market, London predicted, and nontheatrical players could step into the void as well. He hinted that a large homevideo retailer is looking to set up a theatrical distribution company that would put up significant minimum guarantees and P&A coin against an exclusive ancillary window. Others wondered how VOD could be monetized more widely.

Private equity, meanwhile, continues to play an important role in financing independent fare (see “Precious”). And contributions from foreign buyers shouldn’t be dismissed either, argued Nicolas Chartier, producer and financier of Gotham Awards feature and ensemble cast winner “The Hurt Locker.”

As he picked up the feature kudo on stage last week — along with three other producers — Chartier implored Gothams guests to not forget the foreign distributors who had ponied up the cash and took a risk on “The Hurt Locker” before any U.S. distrib came onboard.

Later, he shared that 98% of the bomb-diffusing actioner’s (less-than-$15 million) budget was covered by foreign territories, and that the only U.S. distrib to make an offer on the film was Summit — after the pic was completed and shown at the Venice and Toronto film festivals.

For now, the reality is that there are very few Stateside theatrical distribs that buy — much less prebuy — specialty fare. And they’re pickier than ever.

Longtime indie marketing and distrib vet Mark Urman said: “(U.S.) distributors understand that they have to put in the money and the time and the expertise — because if a film isn’t well released it doesn’t work. If you’re going to put all of that on the table, why should you then also be paying back all the producers’ debts? They want to do that less and less these days. They don’t have to any longer.”

But that fact still doesn’t seem to dissuade filmmakers from making movies and wishing for a distrib deal.

On the day of the Sundance competition lineup announcement, Urman said, “There are several movies with established talent that I’ve not heard word one of before today: That means people still taking two weeks of their lives to make a movie with a friend with the hope and belief that it’s going to be special. And that’s a good thing.”

Distribs and talent scouts will be headed to the mountains of Utah filled with hope as well — hope of unearthing more “Precious” goods.

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