The Sundance Film Festival remains the quickest way for American indie filmmakers to win big. Like landing on Boardwalk and Park Place, it can often pave the way for fortune and success. But as the entertainment industry evolves and marketplace grows more crowded, filmmakers are finding that Sundance isn’t the only game in town.
As longtime indie film attorney and producer John Sloss says, “Mirroring the decentralization of specialty distribution, I think a corresponding democratization of film festivals may be afoot.”
While many industry insiders believe Sundance “is still the epicenter of the American indie film marketplace,” as Sloss sees it, at the same time, “The market has become more diffuse, so the process of selling films is more diffuse and more year-round.”
Out of last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival, for instance, Sloss’s Cinetic Media sold Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12” to Cinedigm. Though rejected by Sundance, the film went on to garner critical acclaim, theatrical ticket sales over $1 million and several awards-season nominations.
While that’s not at the level of a “Little Miss Sunshine,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” or “Fruitvale Station,” Traction Media exec and “Short Term 12” producer Asher Goldstein says, “I definitely think there are other venues for films to find distribution, whether Tribeca, Fantastic Fest or other regional festivals, from Little Rock to Seattle, where filmmakers are announcing a presence to distributors.”
Last year’s SXSW may have signaled a turning point. In addition to “Short Term 12,” several films landed distribution, including most significantly, VOD hit “Drinking Buddies” (Magnolia Pictures), as well as “Cheap Thrills,” “A Band Called Death” (both Drafthouse), “Bad Milo!” (Magnet Releasing), “Haunter” (IFC Midnight), “The Punk Singer” (IFC Films), “Good Ol’ Freda,” “I Give It a Year” (both Magnolia) and “12 O’Clock Boys” (Oscilloscope).
“Buyer awareness and press awareness at SXSW had been building over the course of the last three-four years,” Goldstein says. “Where it used to be junior acquisition execs, now there are people on the ground attending from L.A. and New York.”
Joe Swanberg, director of “Drinking Buddies” and a host of DIY films that premiered at SXSW, acknowledges the importance of the Austin, Texas-based festival in launching his career, as well as that of his compatriots Ti West (“Trigger Man”), Aaron Katz (“Cold Weather”), Lena Dunham (“Tiny Furniture”) and Andrew Haigh (“Weekend”). “But that has no bearing on how much a Sundance premiere can change the life of a film,” he says.
Especially now, when the available equipment has made it so affordable to make movies, “The challenge is to get anyone to see your film when there are so many options,” says Swanberg, whose latest “Happy Christmas” will be the director’s first to bow in Park City. “The Sundance stamp of approval is meaningful to distributors, to press, to audiences and to other filmmakers.”
Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper also believes the festival’s brand has become even more important in recent years. “As it becomes a noisier marketplace, I think you need that curatorial stamp even more,” he says.
On the selection front, this year’s Sundance festival received 4,057 feature film submissions, only 118 of which were selected. While that’s a lot of “noise” to sift through, the number of entrants appears to have plateaued: Only 13 films more than last year, it’s the smallest increase in the festival’s history. Does that suggest Sundance’s stature has reached its apex?
“I think everyone gives Sundance a shot,” Cooper says. “It is still the go-to place: If you get into Sundance, your job becomes easier.”
Of course, there are still many films that play at Sundance every year that are lost at the event, or disappear afterward when released into the marketplace. Hence, not every film may be best served by the biggest festival in the country.
Even Sundance’s Cooper acknowledges there are other places to go for filmmakers. “I don’t want Sundance to be the end-all be-all for independent film,” he says. “I’m happy when films that we don’t program still have a life, and that the film world is broader in scale than just Sundance.”
Katz, co-director of this year’s Sundance selection “Land Ho!” didn’t need Sundance to catapult his career. He says a host of factors helped put his previous feature, “Cold Weather,” on the map, from its SXSW premiere to theatrical runs in New York and Chicago, which drew positive reviews from high-profile critics Manohla Dargis and Roger Ebert.
“I think every film and every filmmaker is different,” Katz says. “Sometimes, it’s about promoting yourself, and sometimes it’s about the quality of the film.”
Writer-director Alex Ross Perry, whose “Listen Up Philip” is premiering in Sundance’s Next section, agrees that the current competitive marketplace demands more from indie filmmakers. “It would be great if we could just let the work speak for itself, but it’s just not where the culture is at anymore,” he says.
For that reason, Perry admits he hustled over a long period of time to get his 2011 debut feature, “The Color Wheel,” noticed after Sundance rejected it. But it wasn’t impossible.
“You just have to look at it as an entire game, and each rotation of the game starts in January,” he says. “You can land on Sundance and get 100 points. That’s a great first square.” But if you don’t, Perry notes from experience, the game isn’t over.
After “The Color Wheel” premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival, Perry says, “I was able to continue rolling doubles and rolling again. And by June, we played at BAMcinemaFest, where we were able to get a full-court New York press offensive, because no had seen it yet. And the same thing happened at the Los Angeles Film Festival. It was a brand new thing.
“We played at over 45 film festivals, and then were given a traditional theatrical release. And then I was at the Independent Spirit Awards, where all these Hollywood people saw a clip from a movie I made with six friends for the price of a used car. … So that’s one way to win the game.”
With “Listen Up Philip,” the director says, “It’s just going to explode into people’s consciousness like only Sundance can do to a film.” And this time around, Perry is looking forward to taking the short cut.