Indie film lottery
Thomas James

As weary festgoers departed Sundance last weekend, my thoughts turned not to the winners, who reaped the accolades and the distribution deals, but to the roughly 4,000 losers — all those who engaged in the melee with lofty expectations and equally lofty credit-card bills.

Sundance, after all, is an exercise in fiscal self-immolation masked as a film festival.

But each year, the festival raises a question: Why are more and more indie films getting made in defiance of all the warning signs? The majors released only 120 films last year vs. 204 in 2006, whining all the way about shrinking margins. Now look at the indies: The New York Times published some 900 film reviews last year (75 more than the year before), most of them of indie pictures. Variety last year carried 1,080 reviews.

Then there’s another anomaly: Survey the Oscar nominations, and you discover the ever-growing presence of independent financing behind supposed major releases. “American Hustle,” “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wolf of Wall Street” wouldn’t have been made without hefty funding from non-Hollywood sources. There’s clearly a lot of venture capital out there — but in these particular instances, we’re talking truly adventurous capital.

The increase in such film financing is even more counterintuitive because the mantra among CEOs and financial gurus is that niche product is doomed in today’s entertainment universe. As the Economist put it last week, “Every media executive is searching for the golden release.”

This of course contradicts last year’s hot theory that the Internet was changing the demand curve for film and music — that the combination of limitless shelf space and the deployment of more sophisticated search algorithms would vastly increase the market for niche product. Remember the popularity of Chris Anderson’s book “The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More.”

Well this year’s iteration is focused on selling more of less — fewer pictures that all feature giant budgets and equally colossal worldwide marketing campaigns.

To be sure, this hasn’t inhibited filmmakers from entering this year’s festival lottery. After all, new platforms beckon. The majors may disdain indie product, but Netflix and Amazon are ablaze (looking for hits). And there are success stories. “Tiny Furniture” may have grossed less than $400,000 at the domestic box office, but it propelled Lena Dunham into a bountiful HBO deal. “Don Jon,” starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, found an optimistic distributor in Relativity after its Sundance bow, went on to gross $24 million domestically, and got Levitt a TV show too.

So the dream is alive and well, despite the odds. And sometimes the success stories are downright delicious. In 2005, John Singleton, the high-energy filmmaker who broke through with “Boyz N the Hood,” figured out a strategy for cracking Sundance. He’d produced a new film called “Hustle & Flow” that was so hot he wouldn’t even screen it. Not, that is, unless someone came up with a great offer in advance.

When he finally was persuaded to hold a private screening, the buzz was so positive that a bidding war broke out. Paramount ended up paying $9 million for the rights, but also had to agree to co-finance two additional films.

“Hustle & Flow” turned out to be something of a hustle. The film did only modest business in the U.S. ($22 million), and Paramount never made the next two films.

Yes, it’s possible to beat the system, and the success stories prove it — sufficient to encourage all those daddies who are being prodded by their filmmaker children to let them shoot for just six more days and charge it to their credit cards. Clearly they’re on their way to auteur stardom; even if the festival circuit turns them down, there’s a beneficent algorithm out there that will surely discover them.

After all, the great filmmaking public cannot subsist on hits alone — especially when there’s a vast universe of potential flops on the horizon.

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