Next category gives low-budget films a home

Sundance has always been a place for low-budget films. From “The Blair Witch Project” to “Clerks,” many of the festival’s biggest successes have been made with the leanest means. A snapshot of the independent scene today shows a fresh crop of grassroots helmers — “Generation DIY,” as some have called them — who make personal stories financed for low five- or six-figure sums, usually shooting on digital and often open to new avenues for distribution.

What put Sundance on the map was showcasing those kinds of films,” says programming director Trevor Groth, who acknowledges that in recent years the festival has become more closely associated with higher-end fare like “Little Miss Sunshine.” “As an industry grew up around independent films, we wanted to make sure the little movies didn’t get squeezed out.”

This year, in an effort to return Sundance to its roots and spotlight the best in micro-budget filmmaking, festival programmers have added the Next category. Modestly produced films aren’t limited to that sidebar, of course (several inexpensive entries, including Diane Bell’s “Obselidia,” Bryan Poyser’s “Lovers of Hate” and Drake Doremus’ “Douchebag,” even found their way into competition), but as a group, they reveal how much shoestring filmmaking has changed in recent years.

Above all, new technology (including a wave of affordable hi-def cameras) has effectively eliminated the barriers of entry for aspiring filmmakers and given rise to the new “do it yourself” mentality.

Even more significant than fancy new cameras is the change that has happened in the post-production realm,” argues “Lovers of Hate” helmer Poyser. “Final Cut Pro now comes bundled with color-correction software. Before, you would have had to pay a skilled technician to make the changes we were able to do with a prosumer piece of software.”

Such tools narrow the technical gap between low-budget and more expensive films, potentially making these pics more attractive to acquisitions pros. (Paramount’s plans to produce cheap genre pics post-”Paranormal Activity” reflects a willingness among mainstream auds to embrace such films.)

As a distributor, we want to see them all, and potentially we’ll pick some up,” says Arianna Bocco, VP of acquisitions for IFC Films, “but more importantly, all the filmmakers and producers in the Next category seem to be taking more control over their own releases.”

In an unprecedented move, two of the Next titles are going into the fest with distribution in place, using the publicity stirred up by Sundance to support VOD and DVD launches. The filmmakers behind “One Too Many Mornings” plan to sell DVDs immediately after the pic’s Park City premiere through an arrangement with direct-to-fan music-marketing shingle Topspin Media. And producer Thomas Woodr.ow has partnered with publicist Marian Koltai-Levine and New Video to make “Bass Ackwards” available on demand beginning Feb. 1.

As Woodrow puts it: “A theatrical window is normally thought of a loss-leading marketing campaign to generate interest in the ancillary. In that sense then, Sundance is our theatrical.”

Another common thread within the DIY filmmaking community is the fact that many of the directors are already friends — a camaraderie that originally sparked on the festival circuit. As a natural consequence of following their projects from fest to fest over the calendar year, young helmers tend to meet other like-minded filmmakers and, in the spirit of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, frequently stay in touch.

Perhaps the most famous example of such bonding occurred in 2005 at Austin’s South by Southwest film festival, home of the so-called Mumblecore movement, where directors Joe Swanberg, Andrew Bujalski and the Duplass brothers (among others) first connected. Mutually appreciative of their new friends’ work, the prolific directors proceeded to collaborate on future projects, sharing equipment and appearing in one another’s films.

At the center of this network are Mark and Jay Duplass, who made their Sundance debut in 2003 with the short “This Is John” and have since graduated to directing a feature for Fox Searchlight (their film, “Cyrus,” preems at this year’s fest). “Our dream was to make a decent movie for 10 grand and have someone watch it and hopefully get accolades,” Mark recalls. Rather than outgrowing their roots, the success of the Duplasses has actually allowed them to be more supportive of their DIY peers. In fact, Mark helped finance three 2010 Sundance entries: “Lovers of Hate,” “Bass Ackwards” and “The Freebie,” directed by his wife Katie Aselton.

Aselton thinks of herself as an actress first, but after taking some time off to have a baby, the calls stopped coming. So, in keeping with the DIY spirit, she outlined an idea (about a husband and wife who agree to give each other a night off) and made her own movie.

I got sick of whining about it,” Aselton says, “and Mark is an amazing example of how to generate your own work. He doesn’t sit there waiting for the phone to ring.”

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