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Digital deals could impact festival pick-ups

Select titles chosen by Sundance, Slamdance get web exposure

Independent filmmakers have one goal in mind as the Sundance and Slamdance film festivals heat up: to get their films seen by as many people as possible.

But a flurry of digital deals by fest organizers and filmmakers with companies like Microsoft and YouTube to rent movies bowing at the events could wind up hurting the potential value of their overall sales if picked up by distributors.

Slamdance announced Thursday it would launch a four-film festival for a week, starting Jan. 27, that will make the docus “American Jihadist” and “Mind of the Demon: The Larry Linkogle Story,” and the dark comedy “The Scenesters” and medieval reenactment tale “The Wild Hunt” available for rental on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 game console and Zune portable music and video player for between $7 to $10.

On Wednesday, YouTube said it had paried up with Sundance to stream five titles at the price of $3.99 per pic. Sundance will also make five more pics available on cable systems like Time Warner and Comcast, as well as satcaster DirecTV through a branded VOD channel.

The digital video-on-demand deals are seen as a way to give the films considerable exposure with the millions of people who watch videos on YouTube or on Microsoft’s devices.

The YouTube deal, in particular, is a way for the Google-owned company to tubthump its new movie rental business.

It’s time now to be progressive and unleash our film programs outside of the festival and directly help filmmakers find popular, worldwide audiences,” said Slamdance prexy and co-founder Peter Baxter in announcing the deal with Microsoft. “The standard of Slamdance films deserve this much and we believe the audience will respond.”

But will buyers?

When picking up films at the festivals, buyers are looking to exploit the movies across all platforms. Video-on-demand, whether it’s on a cable box, videogame console, online or on mobile devices, is increasingly seen as a lucrative way to collect more coin.

So the availability of a movie for rent before a film is sold could dissuade some dealmakers from offering a more lucrative deal, considering one of their distribution platforms has already been eliminated from the mix.

Entertainment attorneys advise filmmakers to be cautious.

To pre-sell a platform is not a positive,” said Kenneth Suddleson, managing partner of the Los Angeles office of Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon. “The more platforms that you pre-sell the more it reduces your ability to make overall distribution deals. The more a movie’s been exploited, the less attractive it becomes for others.”

But that depends on the type of deal a filmmaker brokers when it comes to early digital screenings.

Filmmakers do have options that will protect them, which involves brokering a limited scope deal that lasts for the duration of a festival and a brief period afterward and wouldn’t interfere with traditional distribution deals. Doing so will enable a film’s online presence to play out as a marketing maneuver to drum up awareness for a pic and still enables buyers to exploit the film across various digital platforms once they’ve purchased the project.

“Digital rights deals are opportunistic,” said Steven Beer, a film attorney and producer’s representative at Greenberg Traurig. “For now they don’t lead to a lot of money, but if you get a position on a visible digital platform you can gain awareness and take that with you when you roll it out onto other platforms like theatrical, VOD and DVD. You need to be relevant coming out of a festival where there are scores of films and short-term deals are useful for generating an audience where a filmmaker would otherwise be unable to break through the noise of a festival.”

Some filmmakers like producer Jeff Grace are embracing the marketing aspect of the Microsoft deal, believing it will expand the audience for “The Scenesters” “from a few hundred to a few thousand or more” because theater space is tight in Park City and it can now screen for people who may not have been able to make the trek to Utah.

Still, many of the deals can be chalked up to excited filmmakers eager to get their films in front of audiences, not just buyers.

Being able to put my film directly in front of the viewer sooner rather than later and without the numerous layers in between is very exciting,” said “American Jihadist” director Mark Claywell. “It’s empowering for an independent filmmaker to know that there are other options emerging to get the work directly to the audience.”

The deal with Slamdance is expected to expand to a year-round programming block with Microsoft offering Xbox Live’s 20 million members to rent or own downloaded movies. Sundance’s VOD initiative will be available to more than 40 million cable and satellite TV customers. On its own, YouTube generates 1 billion page views daily which could lead to an entirely new problem should the film get pirated and play everywhere online.

And that may just be the point. It can be hard for a first-time filmmaker to get Hollywood’s attention. There have been fewer deals taking place at festivals over the years, and movie that drums up a major following online could help get buyers to the table.

It was as easy as saying ‘hell yes!'” said “Mind of the Demon”-helmer Adam Barker. “You blink, and suddenly your film is aligned with a merger of large entities that are all willing to roll the dice to try something independent, new and cool. There is no down side.”

Not everyone believes that.

It’s a real roll of the dice,” said Jonathan Handel, entertainment attorney at TroyGould and adjunct professor at the UCLA’s School of Law. “Buyers want as many platforms that they can get their hands on. Any new media question operates under a cloud of fear and uncertainty. No one knows how to value the rights for a given period of time. The internet is a wave that continues to wash over this business and nobody knows when or where it will crest.”

Suddleson agrees: “It’s a fascinating time. Filmmakers who have spent a lot of time and money are anxious to get their films seen. They’re not always willing to wait for the right deal. But for new filmmakers, the first film is not nearly as important as the second film. You want to get something out there to show people you’re talented.”

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