After years of representing a scrappy arts institute and its film festival, the name “Sundance” has grown to stand for a cable channel, a film distribution label, two online VOD rental outlets, a chain of theaters and film programs around the country and world.
At first glance, it seems almost unfair to measure a nonprofit org dedicated to discovering and developing the best young, cutting-edge films and filmmakers by the value of its name. But the question of Sundance’s brand equity makes sense, considering its fast-growing expansion into new territory at a time when brand identity seems even more crucial to garnering consumer confidence for unknown, untested fare than ever.
“As much as we love and have built the brand IFC, Sundance is one of the very few global film brands, and in terms of independent film, it’s the best known global brand in the world. Everything pales in comparison,” says IFC Entertainment head Jonathan Sehring, who oversees Sundance Selects as one of IFC’s three film labels. Under the Sundance name (which IFC parent company Rainbow Media was able to use after acquiring the Sundance Channel in 2008), IFC releases docs, foreign-language and prestige American fare that’s played any number of festivals — or none at all.
Prestige doesn’t always equal box office success, and while Sundance is known for such breakout low-budget hits as “Little Miss Sunshine,” it’s also been known for films that gain fanfare at the fest but little else. Sony Pictures
Classics co-head Tom Bernard sees its reputation for the latter shifting as popular culture catches up to Sundance’s edgier sensibility.
“Sundance has become sort of a generic word, like Coke for cola or Band-Aid for adhesive strip,” Bernard says. “In the past, a ‘Sundance-type movie’ had a connotation that was ‘not very good’ or ‘really esoteric,’ and I think that’s changed. The ‘Sundance movie’ brand now has the feel of something that’s fiercely independent, that’s going to be new and unique, like ‘Martha Marcy May Marlene.’ It changes monthly, and right now I think the stars are aligned with (what Sundance stands for).”
This year marks the third edition under director John Cooper and programming head Trevor Groth, and the second for Sundance Institute exec director Keri Putnam.
Commercial ventures bearing the fest’s name may have grown in the past three years, but this trio — who maintain clear church-and-state separation between those ventures and the nonprofits they oversee — have arguably fostered a fest as uncompromising to commercial interests as ever: When the competition lineup was announced in December, none of the films had distributors attached.
When it comes to outside ventures and cross promotions, Cooper says the org isn’t promoting Sundance, per se.
“We’re promoting the notion of independent film as viable entertainment,” he says. “When we curate a program, we’re not interested in trying to change perceptions of us. I’m more interested in representing what the filmmakers are doing this year.”
For breaking directors, producers and thesps, being selected to play Sundance can make all the difference in the life of their films, exposing their work to receptive buyers and press, and giving them that special “Sundance film” cachet when the pics eventually reach the marketplace.
Certainly, the brand’s power can be seen in the wannabe starlets eager to pose in front of the Sundance logo on Main Street, or the countless marketers looking to reach the tastemakers attending the fest.
While last year saw a record percentage of fest titles obtain some form of distribution (thanks in part to a growing number of VOD and ancillary release options), the Sundance Institute recently launched initiatives to promote some of its most niche — and possibly least commercial — offerings.
On the front end, Sundance’s year-old partnership with Kickstarter helped the crowdsourcing initiative fund 50 films to the tune of $1.4 million, according to the Institute’s digital initiatives director Joseph Beyer.
On the back end, the Institute’s Artists Services program forged a partnership with New Video that could potentially make any feature ever shown at the fest, brought to its lab or given a grant available to the public via iTunes, Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, Netflix, SundanceNow and YouTube. Filmmakers behind these unreleased or long-lost titles can retain all rights to their work and use Topspin Media marketing tools.
While this push will bring even greater public awareness to the “esoteric” side of Sundance’s historic slate, on the flip side, programs like Sundance Film Festival USA will dispatch directors from nine of the 2012 edition’s most buzzed-about sales titles — including such potentially commercial pics as “Celeste and Jesse Forever,” “Arbitrage” and “Bachelorette” — to screen their films in cities around the country during the festival.
Though the public has shaped its idea of the Sundance brand from the Institute’s work across a range of different platforms, insiders note that Robert Redford’s founding vision began with the labs, where the core idea, as Putnam summarizes it, has always been “supporting independent new voices and celebrating creativity on the cutting edge — innovation in the ways stories are told and seen.”
Adds Groth: “As far as the other entities that have the word ‘Sundance’ in them, Redford is always very careful with how that word is used. He knows it began with the Institute, and anyone he lends that name has to be true to its values.”
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