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How Sundance Is Trying to Make Smaller Films Profitable With Self-Distribution

For the first time, the Sundance Institute is helping one of the festival's alumni with distribution and marketing to explore a new model for festival films.

John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson in Kogonada's Columbus

“Columbus”

Producer Danielle Renfrew Behrens was never under the illusion that her quiet indie “Columbus” would spark a bidding war after it premiered at Sundance. But when popular video-essayist-turned-filmmaker Kogonada’s directorial debut became one of the best reviewed films at the 2017 festival, she did assume there would be distribution offers that, at the very least, would make her investors happy.

It didn’t quite work out that way. “We did get offers, but they didn’t make sense for us,” said Behrens in an interview with IndieWire. “The film would have had a respectable release, but we wouldn’t have recouped based on that offer.”

That experience led “Columbus” to become one of two inaugural recipients of the Creative Distribution Fellowship, the Sundance Institute’s new workshop for completed films seeking help with marketing and distribution. The other recipient is “Unrest,” a documentary that also premiered at Sundance in January 2017. The fellowship comes with a sizable grant – one of the largest Sundance has ever handed out for distribution – to support the costs of marketing.

This was never part of the plan. Behrens — who has been producing moderately-priced indies (“The Queen of Versailles,” “Grandma”) for close to 20 years and whose company Superlative Films raised the financing for “Columbus” — admits that she was caught off-guard. Not only were distributors offering lower-than-expected money upfront, but she also lacked faith that bidders would put the resources behind “Columbus” to make sure it found its audience.

Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho in Columbus

“Columbus”

Superlative Films

“I’ve had success selling films and have been happy with the marketing of them,” said Behrens. “But for this film to be successful, it needs a team that will get under the hood and do a lot of outreach and really target it to [potential] niche audiences.”

The financial side of independent film is always a gamble, but in the case of “Columbus,” Behrens believed the risk was if Kogonada could deliver on his unique vision with his first feature film. Once he did, the producer was confident “Columbus” was a strong candidate to tap a few different niche audiences that went beyond the arthouse film crowd responding to the great reviews.

The film is set against the unlikely modern architecture mecca of Columbus, Indiana, which Kogonada fully incorporated into his script and concise geometrical framing. With proper marketing, Behrens assumed, the film could be a must-see for followers of modern art, architecture and design. Additionally, at a time when audiences are hungry for more diverse storytellers, “Columbus” was a breakout debut from an Asian American filmmaker that featured an Asian American character as its lead, played by John Cho.

"Columbus"

“Columbus”

Superlative Films

“Koganada is so specific and I felt like I owed it to him to feel like the marketing and positioning of the film was done with as much precision and passion as he made the film,” said Behrens. “I’m not ready to walk away from it and give it to someone else unless I feel like I know they are going to care about it as much as I do.”

All signs pointed to the producer taking on the responsibility of self-distribution, but the costs were steep. The approach would involve laying out even more money for publicity and advertising, but it also meant that Behrens would have to delay her plans for future projects.

Columbus, Haley Lu Richardson and Kogonada on se

Haley Lu Richardson and Kogonada on set

Kyle Flubacker, Superlative

“For me, it was a little bit of a risk, because it’s me telling my investors we have offers that weren’t going to be amazingly lucrative, but they were going to be money in our pocket very quickly and I would be onto the next thing,” said Behrens. That’s when Sundance’s Creative Distribution Initiative came into play.

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