Of the 117 features selected for Sundance last year — culled from nearly 4,000 submissions — just over half landed deals with theatrical distributors. With odds that long, and distrib options increasingly diverse, some are opting to take matters into their own hands ahead of time.
This year, two entries head into the fest with self-distribution deals in place, using Sundance buzz and PR as a launching pad and keeping their rights: Dave Grohl’s rockumentary “Sound City” and the sophomore film from Sundance’s 2004 Dramatic Grand Jury Prize winner Shane Carruth, “Upstream Color.”
“Across the country we’re going to declare Jan. 31 to be Sound City Day, with a one-night screening for fans in close to 50 markets,” says Variance owner Dylan Marchetti.
After learning a lot about indie releasing on “Primer,” Carruth says, “I feel like I can do this myself, and I’m willing to take the risk, if that means I get to handcraft how this is framed.” It’s one more duty for Carruth, who wrote, produced, directed, scored, co-edited and stars in the long-awaited project.
He enlisted theatrical booker mTuckman media, Prodigy PR and Susan Norget Film Promotion for an April 5 theatrical launch at Gotham’s IFC Center, expanding weekly to hit more than 15 U.S. markets, and bowing on all ancillary platforms in early May.
Carruth chose the short ancillary window after his disappointment waiting nine to 12 months to see others’ fest entries, and a desire to lens another film later this year — not his sci-fi script “A Topiary,” but another feature (now titled “The Modern Ocean”) which he says offers “a continuation of the emotional language in ‘Upstream Color.’ … I’m rabid to shoot the next film and too single-minded to try to do both at the same time.”
“We’ll do some screenings that will seemingly appear out of thin air, but they’ll be orchestrated in advance (for) regional awareness,” says Carruth, referring to the marketing elements he created as “a continuation of storytelling.” Carruth’s approach is consistent with the enigma developed during his nine-year absence from the screen — and in keeping with a film he finds hard to describe, calling it “a modern myth-slash-allegory … a true sensory exploration. This could be my ego talking, but I don’t think this is like anything else.”
Carruth’s plan may be hand-crafted, but the impetus behind it isn’t unique, says mTuckman owner Michael Tuckman: “More producers are having a (self-distribution) plan ready to go, or starting to talk about who might be on their team to get their film out if they don’t see a seven-figure deal come their way at Sundance.”
Tuckman should know. He helped launch “Detropia,” the top self-released Sundance feature last year, grossing $380,000. His company is one of several boutique distribs — along with Variance, Abramorama, Producers Distribution Agency and Paladin — that have facilitated self-releasing of Sundance titles. Another self-made 2012 success was Ava DuVernay, who put out her 2012 entry “Middle of Nowhere” through a film cooperative she founded, the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement.
On “Detropia,” directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady reached out to Tuckman a month after getting disappointing offers at Sundance to develop a theatrical rollout plan, then raised most of their $90,000 costs on Kickstarter. Their plan brought them to 10 key markets over six weeks for in-person Q&As last fall (plus 40 more streamed to theaters via Skype that also boosted B.O.), eventually reaching more than 100 markets.
“It was a big risk, but we weren’t confident enough to give up all of our rights to any of these distributors for a really bad advance and a lack of vision,” Ewing says. “We made all the strategic decisions. The film made money, we own it, and now we stand to gain a lot more.”
Many start or end their journey with Sundance Institute’s Artist Services program, which connects filmmakers with digital distribution and marketing platforms. The org introduced filmmaker Stacy Peralta to Topspin Media, which designed a website with a skateboarder-targeted campaign for his 2012 doc “Bones Brigade: An Autobiography” that helped to recoup its $500,000 budget via merchandising and online sales before it hit theaters last November.
“Artist Services is looking to expand into the direct-to-fan space with other companies offering new technologies and tools for people to get their stories connected with audiences,” says Sundance Institute exec director Keri Putnam, indicating that an announcement of more partners is coming soon.
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