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A Changing Film Market Raises the Pressure for Sundance Indies to Succeed (Column)

Regretfully, I never go to the Sundance Film Festival anymore because I need to mind the editorial store back home, knowing that our crack team of reporters and critics will be filing great scoops and reviews while freezing their butts off (sorry!).

I have lots of fond memories from the days when I frequented Park City, including the year (1989) I met and chatted up Steven Soderbergh when he premiered his directorial debut, “sex, lies, and videotape,” at the festival. Starring James Spader and Andie MacDowell, the film won the Audience Award and went on to score the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and then an Oscar nomination.

As important as all the critical acclaim, the film became a big box office hit relative to its low cost, with some $25 million in ticket sales. Why that was so vitally important was that the movie’s financial success sent a strong message to the bean counters in Hollywood that, hell, independent films can be very profitable.

Unfortunately, today, the theatrical market for indie fare is so challenged. That just kills me because we need these pictures to flourish in a world where we are barraged weekend after weekend by one mindless superhero movie after the next.

What’s happened is that streaming giants Netflix and Amazon have swooped in and started paying big bucks for indie films, upsetting the ecosystem. They didn’t need these movies to be successful at the multiplex; their financial models are built on either adding subscribers or selling paper towels. In the process, indie distributors like Sony Pictures Classics, Neon and Bleecker Street are left to pick up the scraps. There are still films that break through — “The Favourite,” “Hereditary” and “Eighth Grade” — but most indie movies sort of vanish without a trace. Just look at the “big” sales from last year’s Sundance: “Blindspotting,” “Colette,” “Juliet, Naked” and “Wildlife” got solid reviews and landed sizable deals, but almost nobody went to see them in theaters. Consequently, indie distributors are struggling to decide which movies warrant theatrical releases these days, since so much streaming content is available.

Hopefully, this year’s festival will turn out creative gems that will also soar at the box office!

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