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Sundance: Filmmakers flex options

Sundance Film Festival 2013

Launching a career in Sundance used to follow a fairly straightforward formula: make a feature, land a deal, then go on to make bigger and more commercial films. But as budgets and salaries have dropped, media have fragmented and more films compete for fewer theatrical slots, people dreaming of post-fest success have to rethink their expectations.

Gone are the days of the naive young artist getting lucky in Park City. Today’s savvier helmers come in with open minds and a wide range of skills, which positions them for a more multi-faceted career than their Sundance predecessors.

Twenty years ago, indie iconoclasts might have turned their noses up at directing television, for example. Today, many make their living there, finding relatively lucrative yet creatively fulfilling gigs due to more opportunities on cable.

“Some of the best motion pictures right now are coming out of that world, and I think a lot of that has to do with the infusion of independent filmmaking talent,” says Sundance director of programming Trevor Groth.

Fest director John Cooper has often played informal matchmaker for such gigs. “I’ve gone to meetings where people putting HBO shows together tell me what kind of style they’re looking for, and I’ll go through a whole list of directors with them,” he says. “Michelle Satter also does this in the lab.”

As if to acknowledge this new reality, the 2013 fest will host the premiere of Jane Campion’s Sundance Channel miniseries “Top of the Lake,” as well as a panel on indie auteurs working on the smallscreen. The many Sundance vets who’ve produced or helmed TV projects include Mike White and Miguel Arteta (“Enlightened”), Sean Durkin (the U.K.’s Channel Four miniseries “Southcliffe”) and “My Sister’s Sister” helmer Lynn Shelton, who returns this year with “Touchy Feely” after directing episodes of “Mad Men” and “New Girl.”

“Ever since I saw independent film directors credited with directing episodes of the TV series ‘Homicide’ in the ’90s, I’ve been so intrigued by the idea of being a guest director on a TV show,” Shelton says. “A friend of mine said every extra million dollars added to your budget means another 10 people who want to have their say. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve stayed small: TV gigs allow me to have a little extra cash coming in, and that means there’s a bit less pressure for my own projects to be highly commercial.”

Once the model of an old-school Sundance breakout, graduating from directing esoteric indies to comedies for the majors, David Gordon Green has also been active producing MTV’s animated series “Good Vibes” and the HBO sitcom “Eastbound and Down.”

“Television can be an incredibly profitable arena, and it can also just be full of a lot of talk and development and bullshit that runs you to the ground. I don’t know if it’s for everybody, but I really like having that as a side arm part of my career,” says Green, who returns to his roots this fest with “Prince Avalanche.”

Green also represents another model for success that works for today’s indie creatives, relying on a network of collaborators across the country — in his case, nearly a dozen fellow U. of North Carolina School of the Arts grads (including director Craig Zobel, whose “Compliance” he exec produced) and early “All the Real Girls” collaborators.

That collective mentality — also demonstrated by Durkin’s Borderline Films partnership with Josh Mond and Antonio Campos and such DIY film champs as Joe Swanberg and Mark Duplass — not only provides a support system for starting filmmakers but also protects directors from being driven out of the business the first time one of their films stumbles. Plus, it means getting to work with creatives they trust.

“It’s like keeping the band together,” Green says. “Every time you go onto the set, it feels like a family.” While he’s given them lucrative commercial assignments as far away as Indonesia, they have proven beneficial to him as well. “I made a surprising amount of money from ‘Compliance’ thanks to the cult around it.”

Producers Jen Chaiken and Sebastian Dungan partnered in order to increase their output (their 72 Productions made both “Afternoon Delight” and “Inequality for All”). “We realized we needed to diversify and multiply our slate because it wouldn’t be realistic financially to just do one film at a time,” she says.

Parts and Labor’s New York-based Jay Van Hoy and Lars Knudsen, who have three Sundance entries (“Mother of George,” “Narco Cultura” and “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), find that despite working on lower budgets, their divide-and-conquer producing partnership allows them enough fees to get by. “Working on multiple films at once is what we really enjoy about producing,” Van Hoy says. “There’s something enriching about having to think about three different stories at once.”

Though many dream of being full-time directors, indie storytellers often find it necessary to juggle other jobs on the side. “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” helmer David Lowery makes his main living (and hones his craft) as a commercials, industrials and indie film editor (including this year’s “Upstream Color”). “I look at it as a learning opportunity,” he says.

Likewise, “We Are What We Are” director Jim Mickle’s main gig is video editing and after-effects animation at post house Max Curious Productions. “You don’t really make a living at this range unless you direct two or three movies a year,” he says. “I edit my own movies, and it totally keeps you up on the technical end.”

“Catfish” directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have tried nearly all the above paths since their 2010 Sundance debut, which they funded by producing a PBS doc and medical industry videos. After transferring their doc skills to found-footage horror with “Paranormal Activity 4,” they pitched MTV “Catfish: The TV Show,” a reality series based on their online dating doc.

Now adapting “The Monkey Wrench Gang” for producer Ed Pressman, they recommend new filmmakers find mentors before heading to Sundance to help guide them through the landscape, as they did with “Catfish” producers Andrew Jarecki and Marc Smerling.

“You need to find someone you can trust who’s 100% on your side and who’s been through the experience,” Schulman says. “Otherwise, everyone’s just got a shit-eating grin and a handshake.”

Sundance Film Fesitval 2013
Filmmakers flex options | Target titles | Grindhouse meets arthouse | Labs offer Mid East voice lessons | Five’s who’ll thrive

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