Word out of the Sundance Film Festival this year was all about the sheer volume of sales taking place after several down years. Could this be directly attributed to the quality of movies screening at the fest? That remains to be seen — the documentary slate was universally lauded, though pundits were mixed on the line-up of dramatic films — but it was clearly a good year in a down economy for indie film. See David Leitner’s blog posts to get a sense for the view from Main Street in Park City, Utah. Here’s what we gleaned back in New York, watching the festival unfold from a distance — and avidly reading the reviews, tweets, blogs, and other reports from those in attendance.
Pictured, top: Sundance Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic winner Like Crazy
A full list of 2011 Sundance award-winning films is here.
1.) Business is Booming
The Wall Street Journal counted “nearly 30” distribution deals made at the festival, and cited the success of 2010 Sundance pick-ups including Blue Valentine, The Kids Are All Right, and Winter’s Bone as impetus for indie distriubs, and some studios, to make bolder moves this year. At IndieWire, Eugene Hernandez also led with the high profile of Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone as a probable catalyst for increased sales activity. Paramount paid $4 million for the Dramatic Grand Jury prize-winner, Like Crazy — that’s a huge number these days. Other deals made at the fest ensured releases for such popular Sundance titles as Martha Marcy May Marlene, Another Earth, Take Shelter, and Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times. Keep an eye on how those perform between now and the end of the year and you’ll probably get a sense of whether the boom will continue in 2012 — or if the world will just come to an end.
2.) Video on Demand Matters
DVD used to be a hedge against potentially sluggish ticket sales for theatrical engagements of an indie film. Now that the DVD market has dried up somewhat, the new guarantee of ancillary revenues for a film comes from the video-on-demand market, including services offered by cable companies as well as increasingly big-ticket and high-profile deals with Netflix for its Watch Instantly service and, assuming the rumors are true, an about-to-be-launched all-you-can-stream service from Amazon.com. It’s hard to get a handle on how much revenue VOD really generates, but it’s an undeniable bright spot in a contracting video market — Netflix posted a 34 percent jump in revenue from 20 million subscribers during the fourth quarter of 2010, even as it spent 10 percent less on marketing than in the year-ago period.
3.) Crowdsourced Production is Possible
One of the more surprising things about the documentary Life in a Day may have been how stellar the reviews were. The Ridley Scott-produced/Kevin Macdonald-directed project asked YouTube users to shoot video on July 24, 2010, and upload their clips for possible inclusion in the film. “The movie is provocative, gorgeous and at times deeply moving,” reported Wired writer Jason Silverman. “The press and industry screening I attended was filled with gasps and sniffles.” Can lightning strike again and again? Who knows? But expect to see more experiments on this front in the years to come.
4.) Crowdsourced Financing is Starting to Happen
If you follow many filmmakers on Twitter, you’ve no doubt been hit up already to contribute to this or that deserving project by kicking in a few bucks through Kickstarter, a Web platform for funding creative projects of all sizes. The relationship between Kickstarter and independent filmmakers got more formalized at Sundance with the announcement of a new program connecting Kickstarter with the Sundance Institute and its artistic development programs for filmmakers and theatre artists. Sundance plans “an online hub” of resources for funding and distributing films, and is starting a partnership with Facebook. Who knows where these programs will eventually lead, but it’s nice to see microfinancing, social networking, and indie film lining up together.
5.) Filmmakers are (Still) Frustrated
Whether or not a strong season at Sundance portends a revival of the flagging market for indie film, it’s clear that filmmakers remain frustrated by the lack of distribution options available. That explains the outpouring of support for director Kevin Smith’s self-distribution plans, announced at the contentious premiere screening for his new Red State — just check out the comments on our posting about the news for confirmation that low-budget and no-budget filmmakers hope to eventually take Smith’s lead by taking their destinies into their own hands.
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