A distribution rethink at Sundance

Not long ago talk of alternative distribution models belonged on the fringe, the last refuge of filmmakers who didn’t get a traditional deal at Sundance.

This year, the need for new paths to the audience has dominated the festival, from the top-tier companies on down. Monday proved as much, including these developments:

  •  A new-model unit of Sony emerged as the fest’s big buyer, scooping up “Black Dynamite” for just shy of $2 million, but plans to bring in a theatrical partner to minimize risk. It also joined Senator as homevid partner on Saturday pickup “Brooklyn’s Finest”;

  •  IFC execs and Steven Soderbergh touted a day-and-date scheme with the South by Southwest film fest and made the case for “Che’s” unorthodox release;

  •  An all-star group, including fest director Geoff Gilmore, Focus topper James Schamus and Sony Classics co-chief Michael Barker weighed in on the panel “The Panic Button: Push or Ponder?”

The widespread rethinking, fed by the economy and the shakeout in the indie sector, can be seen in the marketplace, which has been marked by caution. Aside from Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group and Senator Films, buyers have taken long pauses after big screenings instead of leaping into risky buys of films such as marquee preem “I Love You, Phillip Morris.”

As everyone considers the wreckage of last year’s crop, including “Hamlet 2,” “Choke” and “What Just Happened?” the defining Sundance rituals of all-night bidding wars or clusters of buyers in the back of theaters are largely absent this year.

“Unless we are able to embrace a new paradigm, we are going to be having the same conversation three or four years from now,” Schamus said at the panel. He said he would buy “Hamlet 2″ again given his passion for the pic and the relatively cheap $10 million pricetag vs. what it would have cost had Focus produced it.

Even so the way to view theatrical, he said, is as “a loss leader that pays for everything else that comes out of a box.”

But Mark Gill of the Film Dept., happily playing the role of doomsayer again, pointed to Paramount Vantage and its recent withdrawal from the specialty biz. “They are the poster child of how not to do this,” Gill declared.

The panel featured a lot of different takes on the biz, from Strand to IFC to self-distribution, which has fueled the likes of “Ballast” and “Bottle Shock.”

“There’s room for all these models,” Barker said. “The more models the better.”

Peter Schlessel, whose purview at Sony includes Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group, said “Black Dynamite,” which was snapped up soon after its smash Sunday midnight screening, has franchise potential. “The lead character is a guy you really want to spend time with,” he said.

Accordingly, the blaxploitation spoof starring Michael Jai White will receive a robust, high-seven-figure marketing boost.

IFC, whose prexy Jonathan Sehring also sat on the panel, invited Soderbergh and Rainbow Media chief Josh Sapan to a breakfast event where they announced the teaming with SXSW and the need to reconsider how films roll out.

Sehring gave a few numbers on video-on-demand transactions, though the company has to keep them largely off-limits due to cable contracts. He said “Che” had generated about 250,000 transactions, which would equal roughly $1.8 million.

“At a time when the U.S. marketplace for truly American independent films and foreign films is rapidly changing and many films are having a hard time getting exposure, IFC Films has created opportunities for a wide range of films to find an audience,” Sehring said.

Several other acquisition titles seemed poised for deals, but as of Monday evening there had been no final word. The shortlist includes Ashton Kutcher sex romp “Spread,” Nick Hornby adaptation “An Education,” intense urban drama “Push: Based on a Novel by Sapphire,” quirky buddy comedy “Humpday” and Pierce Brosnan-Susan Sarandon drama “The Greatest.”

The floodgates many fest regulars thought would open after the “Phillip Morris” screening have not quite done so. “Big Fan,” the sendup of sports fandom helmed by “Wrestler” scribe Robert Siegel, also preemed Sunday but generated only moderate interest as many buyers asked the tough questions about how to market and distribute a title without obvious hooks.

(Michael Jones and Anne Thompson contributed to this report.)

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