Film fests bringing pics to the people directly

Sundance shares films though video on demand, YouTube, road tour

Until recently, the role of a film festival was to find the best pictures available and to showcase them for a short time within limited geographical confines.

Now their priorities have expanded. Amid a brutally tough landscape for indie films, festivals and their execs are increasingly becoming a part of the distribution flow, helping to put films in front of audiences well beyond their events.

For Sundance, which got under way Jan. 21, an expanded push aims to bring auds all over the country to the fest’s films, not physically but via their TV remote controls and computers, and to bring a sampling of the fest’s titles directly to theaters in eight other cities for one night.

On the day of their Sundance premieres, three features from this year’s lineup — thriller “7 Days,” doc “The Shock Doctrine” and dramedy “Daddy Longlegs” — are being made made available on-demand through a branded platform on cable and satellite systems reaching some 40 million homes across the U.S. The deal was inked with Rainbow Media-owned Sundance Selects. (Rainbow also owns cablers Sundance Channel and IFC.) And the Selects label will market the pics under a “Direct From the Sundance Film Festival” banner, with cross-promotions on various properties owned by Rainbow parent Cablevision Systems.

Additionally, a dozen short films went up on YouTube on the fest’s opening day, while five feature-length films from the 2009 and 2010 fests are available to rent on YouTube through the fest’s wrap on Jan. 31. The three titles from this year are “Bass Ackwards,” “One Too Many Mornings” and “Homewrecker,” all of which were selected for the festival’s new micro-budget/DIY film category dubbed Next.

With traditional theatrical deals on the decline at festivals over the past few years, fest chiefs now feel compelled to take a much more active role in helping filmmakers find paying audiences outside the fest turnstiles.

“Moving the storytelling of the Sundance Film Festival beyond 10 days in Utah remains a top priority for us,” Sundance Institute founder Robert Redford said upon the VOD deal announcement earlier this month.

Newly installed Sundance fest director John Cooper says it’s time for distribution experiments, which were once on a modest scale, to become essential aspects of the fest domain.

“New mythologies for how Sundance can help the films we so carefully select need to become realities,” he says. “If it serves our filmmakers, it is right for the festival.”

Such efforts can also serve the fests as massive branding campaigns. For consumers, an imprint like Sundance signals a curated selection of independent, risk-taking films.

In addition to the Sundance Selects VOD effort, eight of this year’s fest titles will travel to eight arthouse theaters around the country for a one-night unspooling plus Q&A session with the filmmakers on Jan. 28, under the Sundance Film Festival USA banner, now in its second year. The cities included are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Nashville, Ann Arbor, Mich., Brookline, Mass. and Madison, Wisconsin.

Sundance isn’t the first or only fest to take films to auds beyond their event boundaries.

South by Southwest experimented with the day-and-date model last year. Filmmaker Joe Swanberg’s 2009 SXSW entry “Alexander the Last” went out on VOD (through IFC’s Festival Direct platform) at the same time the film premiered at the Austin, Texas-based fest.

“IFC came to me about what we could do with Festival Direct,” says SXSW fest director Janet Pierson. “If we created a structure together, what it would be?”

Along with Swanberg’s premiere, SXSW programmed four additional films (two pics acquired by IFC Films from other festivals and two brought back as encores from SXSW 2008) that were grouped together in the day-and-date fest-VOD package.

At the least, Pierson says, she was thrilled with the press coverage the venture brought. “We loved the presence, as well as exploring a world where nobody knows what’s going to work.”

Meanwhile, Sundance rival Slamdance (the fests run concurrently in Park City each year) just inked a distribution pact with Microsoft extending well beyond the festival as a year-round play. Films will go out through VOD and electronic sell-through on two Microsoft platforms, Xbox and Zune.

“We’ve had the belief for a very long time that there is a wider audience for Slamdance films than is currently at the festival,” says Slamdance topper Peter Baxter. “Both Slamdance and Microsoft believe we can find that bigger audience by partnering together.”

The partnership encompasses worldwide distribution of Slamdance pics, as well as other films that are in synch with the Slamdance vibe. Baxter, who is also a filmmaker, will head up acquisitions for the platform. So far, four films from Slamdance’s feature competition are set to go out through the venture.

SXSW’s Pierson is still taking a wait-and-see tack before embracing the new distribution models entirely. She says she’ll look to assess how the various Sundance initiatives work out this year before she commits to making new day-and-date arrangements for her festival in March.

“As a festival director I have to figure out institutionally who we get in bed with,” she says. “And I want to maintain a space for filmmakers to find what’s right for them. I don’t know what the answer is, so I’m not going to impose one way on filmmakers.”

Baxter emphasizes that the Microsoft distribution partnership will offer generous participation to the filmmakers and make it easier and less costly for them to deliver their films to the platform.

Besides, he adds, the perils of not trying out new distribution models outweigh those of embracing them these days.

He says he’s seen filmmakers ink traditional distribution deals and then “struggling with the legal system to deliver their picture, and completely losing their minimum guarantee in the process, while the prices for films are only declining.”

The Microsoft service does involve fees, Baxter says, “(but) they’re not hidden, not expensive and they fit with the economics.”

The prospects of such models — especially when traditional distribution routes continue dry up — are essential to consider, says Baxter.

“We can take a direct role,” he says. “Why wait anymore?”

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