A number of factors conspiring to make this a frenetic year for buying

If the pulse of indie film is felt strongest at the Sundance Film Festival, brace for an alarmingly high heart rate: A number of factors are conspiring to make this a frenetic year for buying in Park City, where the rules are rapidly morphing in ways that will affect the business for years to come.

Word around the fireplace is that there will be more deals this year, at an even faster pace, but for less upfront money. Last year VOD ceased to be a dirty word; this year, it’s at the top of every acquisition conversation after promising digital returns for 2012 day-and-daters “Bachelorette” (Radius TWC) and “Arbitrage” (Lionsgate/Roadside). And with the recent emergence of Cinedigm as yet another 360-degree, digitally-focused (but theatrically capable) distributor, the competition for buzzy titles will be as fierce as ever.

“There are a lot of buyers who aren’t just out window shopping,” one acquisitions exec at a midsized distributor told me. “They’re in a position where they need movies.”

Sights unseen

Adding accelerant to the fire: Filmmakers and sales agents are holding their cards close this year, as DVDs and private screenings of acquisitions prospects have been scarce compared with years past. That’s fine with buyers, most of whom prefer the unspoiled Sundance-aud experience and are happy not to feel the additional pressure of being inundated with pre-fest screeners — but it does set up a potential series of mad lobby scrambles every time the credits roll in Park City.

The producers of the biopic “Jobs,” starring Ashton Kutcher, actively shopped the closing-night film, landing a service deal with Open Road three weeks before its premiere. But the “Jobs” situation was unique: So bent on a wide theatrical release were the producers at Five Star Feature Films that they’re putting up much of the P&A and plan an April release.

Aside from that, it’s been quiet on the pre-buy front, and that’s largely by design.

Haves and have nots

As the theatrical slice of the indie revenue pie shrinks and the digital wedge grows, it’s a good time for distribs to have direct deals with multi-service operators, satellite providers and other pixel platforms — and not everyone does. Building and operating that network is enormously labor-intensive, and the devil’s in the details: Whether it’s iTunes or Netflix or Comcast, each operator’s needs for encoding and metadata is different, meaning that the distributor of a title with 25 deals must rearrange a film’s digital fingerprint 25 different ways.

Cinedigm got around that problem when in April it acquired New Video, which had those operations in place; now that Chris McGurk’s transformation of the alternative content exhibition services company into a full-blown indie distributor is complete, the outfit is looking to be aggressive in Park City. Despite its small size, Freestyle releasing spent a year building its direct-to-MSOs platform, which launched in 2010.

“It was a huge amount of work to get all the deals in place,” CEO Susan Jackson said. “When I saw the numbers, I was like, ‘Wow, good old DVD, where have you gone?’ But we’re really starting to see some nice returns now.”

Many of the midsize distribs piggyback on the output arrangements of affiliated parent companies or third-party studios and digital aggregators, but the consensus is that distribs with direct deals have extra ammunition in the acquisitions game, at least in the minds of producers, financiers and sales agents. It means less of a fee on that platform and more direct control of marketing and release patterns — plus that means one less set of humans to deal with.

Vertical filmmakers

DIY is deep in the DNA of indie filmmakers. And as the writer-actor-director-producer mantle becomes more common, so has their appetite for involvement with release patterns, marketing and distribution models. Today’s indie filmmakers are more aware of — and comfortable with — VOD than ever before.

Yes, they would love a splashy theatrical release. Yes, they’d prefer people go see their movie in theaters. But everyone tacks on the same caveat: They just want people to see their movie, and they don’t really care how (loose translation: they want their investors to get paid, and they don’t really care how).

With day-and-date VOD very much on the table and little resistance from producers and directors, look for several top titles to take the “Arbitrage” route, particularly movies with strong cast recognition, an essential component to VOD success.

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