Netflix eager to grow indie pic ‘eco-system’

Netco helps films get exposure, the awards' voting process

Ted Sarandos, chief content officer for the Internet movie rental hub Netflix, isn’t shy about his company’s influential position in the indie film world. “I can’t tell you how many independent directors have told me that Netflix made the difference between being a filmmaker vs. being a fast-food employee,” says Sarandos.

From the start, Netflix has been a way — sometimes the only way — for indie films to get seen. As far back as 2001, the site carried more than 500 Bollywood films. And, even before the “Y tu mama tambien” dam broke, its Mexico stock numbered more than 600 titles and has tripled since.

Over the past few years, Netflix has made a point of seeking out indie gems, both old and new, that lacked distribution. Until Sarandos came along, David Lynch’s cult classic “Eraserhead” was being sold on-line, via the director’s Web site (DavidLynch.com) with little take-up. Now the film’s in heavy rental rotation. The company also has put its energy into finding once-homeless titles such as Tim Robbins political hot potato “Embedded.”

Hal Hartley’s “The Girl From Monday” is one of four Sundance 2005 titles purchased by Netflix. Netflix and Roadside Attraction also partnered on Jay Duplass’ “The Puffy Chair,” which showed in the fest’s American Spectrum section last year. Other Sundance deals are in the works.

This year, a Netflix-IFC funded pic played at Sundance: Kirby Dick’s MPAA expose “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.” In true indie style, neither company demanded changes on the film. Says Dick, “Well, I got a big batch of comments, and a note saying, ‘These are our notes, go make your film.’ ”

Dick’s film and “The Comedians of Comedy,” which follows five comedians on tour, marked the first Netflix forays into the producing world. Company further partnered with IFC on a two-year, 10-picture deal that includes Rosie Perez’s directorial debut “Yo soy Boricua, pa’que tu lo sepas!” (I’m Boricua, Just So You Know!) and “Wanderlust,” a documentary exploring the road movie by “American Splendor” directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, among others.

Netflix also has become a key contributor to the Independent Spirit Awards voting process. Thanks to a specially walled-off area on the Netflix site, it’s making all nominated pics available to voters — something that’s been sorely lacking in recent years. “It bothered me that it was always the most widely distributed films that were winning Spirit Awards,” says Sarandos. “It bothered me even more that every year there were a half-dozen films without distribution, films that maybe 100 out of the 9,000 (voters) actually saw.”

After the Spirit Awards, Netflix gives the DVD screeners back to the filmmakers so they can use them to try to secure theatrical distribution. “We’re using our sponsorship to not just grow our brand,” says Sarandos, “but to try and grow the whole eco-system of independent film.”