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Indie Pics Gaining Spinoff Success

Filmmakers repurpose projects into multimedia ventures

In the indie world, it used to be that the most a filmmaker could hope to land from a film festival was an award, an agent or a distributor. But as producers wrap up Sundance deals and head to SXSW, more are finding that their films can be spun off into new multimedia ventures and repurposed for unexpected moneymaking properties.

In recent years, entrepreneurial lensers have transformed seemingly conventional fest fare into a hit cartoon series (“Black Dynamite”), a New York Times bestseller (Sebastian Junger’s “War,” made alongside his “Restrepo” doc), and even a Tony-winning Broadway musical (“Once”).

One top film agent says that in the next year, there will be numerous deals in which such pics are the basis for digital applications and Web series on YouTube, Netflix and other outlets. “You’ll see more transmedia storytelling, turning those films into television series, books and social videogames,” he says.

Hit studio films have launched such multimedia franchises for decades, but in recent years, even indies that underperform at the box office have shown moneymaking potential in spinoff projects. The 2009 Sundance pickup “Black Dynamite” made only $242,000 in theaters, but an Adult Swim animated series based on the Blaxploitation spoof was just renewed for a second season by the Cartoon Network.

The 2012 Sundance horror anthology “V/H/S” is a film that has used genre economics, emerging platforms and the omnibus structure to self-replicate. The pic earned a paltry $100,000 at the box office, but the Magnolia/Magnet pickup’s compressed window VOD take was enough to elicit a seven-figure offer from the studio for its sequel at this year’s fest, “V/H/S/2,” and inspire a third compilation that producer Gary Binkow hopes to debut in Park City next year.

Moreover, Binkow, a partner in the pic’s production company the Collective, says he and fellow producer Brad Miska have bigger plans than just another sequel. They’re developing two “V/H/S” segments — David Bruckner’s “Amateur Night” and Joe Swanberg’s “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger” — into separate feature-length films.

“From the beginning, Brad and I talked about creating a platform that incubated ideas for features,” says Binkow, who plans to bring new filmmakers into the fold when the next anthology begins production this spring.

The producers are also discussing a “V/H/S” TV series and comicbook series. “We have an opportunity to become the first VOD franchise,” says Binkow.

Hit docs have spawned profitable reality series, including the MTV version of Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s “Catfish” and FX’s “30 Days,” adapted from Morgan Spurlock’s doc “Super Size Me.”

And docmakers are also mining unused footage and research material for spinoff projects. Cary McClelland, helmer of Pakistan doc “Without Shepherds,” had 900 hours of filmed interviews with some 50 subjects transcribed for translation purposes while making the pic. Since its Slamdance preem, he and his team have been narrowing the text down for a book of production stories and oral histories that goes far beyond what the film can cover, and hope to time the tome’s release with the doc’s ancillary bow.

Kief Davidson crafted some unused footage from his 40-minute Oscar nominated doc on Rwandan children seeking heart surgery, “Open Heart,” into a three-minute short, “Emergency,” that preemed at GE and Cinelan’s Focus Forward series in Park City this year. Davidson says his shorter short’s online exposure added awareness both to the issue and the “Open Heart” theatrical run.

In order to raise funds for a larger project, some filmmakers have taken to serializing portions of their pics: Quentin Dupieux screened a 45-minute section of his crime drama “Wrong Cops” in this year’s New Frontiers section, a film shot in standalone chapters as it is being financed, screened and released.

Others are using bringing shorts to fests as a calling card for feature financing. John Cameron Mitchell, who’s producing Dash Shaw’s upcoming animated feature “Shell Game” with Howard Gertler, recruited Shaw to co-write and direct the Sigur Rós-scored “Seraph.” “We took a character [from “Shell Game”] and extrapolated a different story around him,” Mitchell says. “It’s a free-standing piece, but it’s also a demo of the animation style of the feature we’re trying to get financed.”

Gertler scheduled meetings around its Sundance preem. “It was the first time potential financiers saw Dash’s work on a big screen with big sound, and it whet their appetites in the way we’d hoped,” he says. The producer also pulled off one of the most lucrative coups for a Sundance film, pacting with ABC to turn David France’s Oscar-nommed AIDS doc “How to Survive a Plague” into a narrative miniseries.

But the transmedia trend is not a one-way street. Festival shorts developed online can also deliver a windfall.

“Talent-based digital films can yield millions of dollars in profits,” says one agent, citing Lisa Kudrow’s Internet-to-Showtime series “Web Therapy.” And one of Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner’s “Drunk History” clips from the Funny or Die website won Sundance’s 2010 short filmmaking jury prize before Comedy Central snapped it up for a half-hour series due this summer.

As more indie filmmakers continue to exploit the crossover potential between old and new media, audiences will follow — on their tablets, cell phones and laptops — and even in theaters.

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