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by Eugene Hernandez
December 7, 2009 4:51 AM
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Eugene Hernandez: The Future of Festivals?

Sundance's Trevor Groth (center) with Anne Thompson (left) and Telluride's Gary Meyer (right) at last year's Fest Summit in Las Vegas. Photo by indieWIRE

December 7, 2009, New York, NY -- Film festivals are changing.

To get a better sense of how they are changing, keep a close eye on three leading American events: Sundance, SXSW and Tribeca. Also, watch the moves of a new crop of filmmakers who are hitting the fest circuit in 2010.

New Sundance Film Festival director John Cooper piqued my interest in the shifting role of fests during a telephone conversation last week ahead of the announcement of the 2010 Sundance lineup. He said plainly something that a lot of festivals and filmmakers have been grappling with over the past year, "Film festivals themsleves [will] become part of a distribution strategy for a film. That's what's coming. It's right around the corner."

"We are going to see, in the future, a lot of films leaping into distribution right from the festival platform," Copper stated, "If not during the festival then the day after -- it's going to happen this year." Sundance is expanding its event into eight other cities for one night next month, but taking a wait and see approach on distribution initiatives. Meanwhile other festivals -- namely SXSW and Tribeca -- are aiming to blaze some new trails.

Over the past fifteen years, film festivals have been an important stepping stone for filmmakers seeking distribution. Hire a rep, take your film to a festival and (hopefully) sell it to a distribution company for a release six months to a year later. That approach generally works best for bigger films with name actors or high concept loglines. But, just a few companies are acquiring movies on the festival circuit right now. So, what about striking new work from emerging directors that is discovered at a fest but may not have the obvious hooks that attract traditional buyers?

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12.04.08: A Letter to Filmmakers, Whether or Not You Got Into Sundance

Back in 2007, just a week after the end of the Sundance Film Festival, I was at dinner alongside the directors of a pair of the most acclaimed films at that recent fest. Two of the most talked about movies at Sundance that year. As excited as they were about the success they found with both critics and audiences alike in Park City, the duo were concerned about the distribution prospects for their films. Even then they asked me, why couldn't they just immediately take their movies to Apple's iTunes store to get them out and start capitalizing on the attenion that had been generated by their new movies?

Today, even as sales reps continue to compete this week to sign a new crop of Sundance movies, filmmakers are pondering alternate solutions. Directors and producers are wondering how to immediately make the most of success at a large festval, what to do if they go there and their film doesn't become an immediate "hit" and how to strategize a film that didn't get into the festival in the first place.

With 113 feature films invited to screen at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival, from more than 3,700 that were submitted, the cycle begins again but with new approaches being considered.

The recent success of Lee Daniels' "Precious" from Sundance '09 and Oren Peli's "Paranormal Activity" from Slamdance '08 has raised the expectations of some going into Park City this year, while the ongoing impact of the economic crisis has caused concern among many others.

"There will be sales at Sundance," a high-profile film seller assured me over breakfast last week, hours before the Sundance Film Festival lineup was announced. But, the insider predicted, big deals will mainly follow a select group of higher profile movies. Smaller films from emerging filmmakers, the movies that are often the most interesting ones to come from festivals like Sundance, SXSW, Tribeca and others, will instead have to puruse a so-called "self-publishing" approach to find an audience and monetize their movie, this person said. Filmmakers will have to drive their own distribution, the respected insider reiterated.

So, with the Sundance 2010 lineup out in the open, established and emerging filmmakers alike are left to explore what happens next. This year it will be interesting to watch how festivals structure themselves as potential outlets for filmmakers who are hoping to immediately make the most of their movies in the marketplace. And how, if at all, the traditional distribution community responds.

An emerging move that has industry folks buzzing is a push by Tribeca Enterprises to position itself in the role of some sort of distributor of movies. Tribeca is looking to secure a crop of new films -- as many as ten, according to some insiders -- to release them in conjunction with their Spring festival in New York City and beyond. Tribeca insiders are committed to changing the current model, but are not yet ready to talk about plans that are understood to be evolving as they talk with filmmakers and the industry. Observers will certainly be tracking how the formative plans develop.

Meanwhile, a partnership earlier this year between SXSW and IFC Films brought five festival titles to IFC's VOD platform during the festival, including the day-and-date world premiere of Joe Swanberg's "Nights and Weekends" on cable television at the same time that the movie debuted at SXSW. Similarly, SnagFilms debuted "The Least of These" online concurrent with its world premiere.

Given the overlapping film and Internet events that take place at SXSW, the event would seem well positioned.

"Conversations are getting louder about how festivals can and should aggressively help filmmakers use new technologies to reach a broader audience," new SXSW festival producer Janet Pierson said at the time. Nearly a year later, those conversations have intensified.

Yesterday, Pierson told me that she has no interest in turning her festival into a film distribution company, yet she said the festival would follow filmmakers' leads and work with them to connect their films with audiences. Talks are underway now as SXSW planners work to finalize their 2010 lineup.

Longtime Sundance chief Geoff Gilmore anticipated this activity last year in a first person article for indieWIRE as the festival got underway in January, asking, "Can festivals keep their integrity and even expand their meaningfulness to a range of constituencies? As they move into the future, will cyberspace and other forms of outreach (broadcast, cable etc.) become more a part of festival events in the same way of most sporting events? Will new forms of media become a part of so-called film festivals?"

And just a month later, talking with indieWIRE in the wake of his announcement that he would be leaving the Sundance Institute for Tribeca Enterprises, Gilmore said, "We have to look at what festivals are going to be and we have to look at how that is going to evolve."

"What Tribeca Enterprises is going to do is be involved in setting up a new paradigm," Gilmore explained at the time, "The ways that festivals become platforms for new enterprises."

In Las Vegas today and tomorrow, festival organizers from around the country are gathering for the annual Film Festival Summit. My colleague Anne Thompson will be moderating a conversation today scrutinizing current and emerging festival models.

I look forward to hearing more. What do you think?

Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief & Co-Founder of indieWIRE and can be reached on his blog, through Facebook or via Twitter: @eug.

PREVIOUS WEEKLY COLUMNS:
11.30.09: Paris, City of Cinema (or, In Bed with Agnes) |11.23.09: Frederick Wiseman = The Greatest | 11.16.09: For The Love of Movies | 11.09.09: Building Buzz | 11.02.09: I want it like I wrote it. | 10.26.09: “Precious,” $1 Million or $100 Million? | 10.12.09: Critics (still) Matter | 10.05.09: Is There a Doctor in the House? | 09.28.09: The Indie Summit | 09.21.09: The Oscar Marathon | 09.14.09: DIY v. DIWO | 09.08.09: SPC v. IFC | 08.30.09: Saving Cinema | 08.23.09: Nadie Sabe Nada | 08.16.09: Movies, Now More Than Ever | 08.09.09: It Came From The 80s

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9 Comments

  • Dan Markette | December 21, 2009 6:43 AMReply

    Im always a reader and never comment but.... David mentioned it above but I feel like I have to bring it up again. Articles like this make me wonder about the research that was done while writing it.

    CineQuest is way ahead of these three or four same festivals that always seem to get mentioned. (and fest directors wonder why its so hard to get press... its because the press don't diversify their references!!!)

    No, I am not associated with them in any way but have been twice before, along with most of the other big ones, and plan on going to the '10 instead of dealing with Parks City's crowds. I know one of the filmmakers that premiered at CQ two years ago and they wondered why those other mentioned-too-often festivals didnt look into what Cinequest was doing already for him. In fact, he said he was glad he got into CQ and had been worried about having to premiere at Slamdance (I think it was). How's that for doing things to make these young guys feel good about your festival?! ...worried about *having* to go to a better known festival??

    Mention who deserves to be, please. BTW, do you guys get paid to type Sundance and SXSW or something? lol ;)

    D

  • Eugene Hernandez | December 21, 2009 5:52 AMReply

    It's a good point and the feedback is valuable, I know that festivals including Cinequest, Hot Docs, and IDFA are blazing trails in these areas and we'll focus on them as well in the new year.

    I was trying to make a specific point by including these three particular fests, but it's not meant to be the end of the discussion or the entire picture.

    thanks for the input.

  • crystal1010 | December 19, 2009 9:01 AMReply

    Gaining festival circuit credentials is essential for a certain type of film in particular - "Precious" and "Slumdog Millionaire come to mind straight away. Film festival laurels are the eye-candy and clout essentials for the one-sheets used to market a film in all media outlets.

  • pegu | December 9, 2009 4:53 AMReply

    '“Film festivals themsleves [will] become part of a distribution strategy for a film. That’s what’s coming. It’s right around the corner.'

    Unfortunately, festivals already are part of a films "strategy". It's unfortunately that there are so few festivals that will truly judge films based on merit vs. what will be successful in the marketplace or what will draw an audience to the festival.

    Think about the truly Hollywood blockbuster films that Tribeca has opened with. Rubbish. Unfortunate. Festivals already have mostly sold out. It's just sad that they are not able to raise enough funding from sponsors or a dedicated audience.

  • dylan | December 8, 2009 7:15 AMReply

    I think it's overdue. It's been years since the films that don't have $50 million grosses within them or pre-wrapped Oscars have gotten decent deals at Sundance, SXSW, or any festival, for that matter. At this point, it's time for filmmakers to take matters into their own hands, and use the press, publicity, and buzz that comes from a major festival debut to drive the film into theaters, DVD, and VOD (and if they're lucky, international sales).

    I am of the firm belief that within a month after Sundance ends, filmmakers should have a distribution strategy for their film involving a few more regional fests, a website that's up (hopefully PRE-Sundance) for the public who is curious but doesn't make the trek, and if they're really smart, a DIY-with-help plan for getting the film into theaters before the buzz dies off completely.

    DIY-with-help releasing (that's what we call it, because if you're smart you do it with help) is the future of independent cinema. We've been preaching it for nearly two years now, and for a lot of films it's starting to pay off. But for it really work, it needs to be thought of as a legitimate option for getting a film out into the world- and that means planning (and budgeting) for it- not scrambling to use it as a last resort when Searchlight or Weinstein doesn't pony up $5 million for your rights, because (and I hate to say it), for all but 5-10 films a year, those days are done.

  • kev5000 | December 8, 2009 6:29 AMReply

    Dream on!! Festivals becoming distributors??? Festivals barley can sustain themselves financially. Suddenly thay are going to get into the business of trying to sell little known films by little known directors to mass audiences. The festivals would be in the red after the first year of doing this. The best example is look at all the distribution companies that have come and gone within the past decade. New Line, Miramax, New Yorker, Shooting Gallery.
    If these festivals want to become distributors, they first have to realize its all about money.

  • FilmMe | December 8, 2009 3:11 AMReply

    Is IFC going to pay the filmmakers for VOD? Or will this be like the old deals where filmmakers do not get paid.

  • david_j | December 7, 2009 9:05 AMReply

    Excellent article, Eugene. This has been coming for a long time. In fact, the first festival I know of to do this about 4 years ago (and is still doing it) is Cinequest, which my partner has had his film on for some time and been receiving regular payments for Amazon, Netflix and now itunes buys.

    Obviously, not every festival will have the ability to do this, based on economics and amount of staffing, but it is good to see that others besides Cinequest are thinking about this. To give a complete picture on this subject, I do suggest talking to Cinequest about how it has been for the films on their label. I do not think they have done theatrical and only VOD and DVD, but it would be nice to know how their titles have done financially.

    Just a thought.

  • nhpbob | December 7, 2009 8:04 AMReply

    It's clear that film festivals, including the big ones, can use any help they can get to stay solvent, or even alive, on this current bumpy ride. Maybe some kind of regular film-festival programming (internet, TV/cable...Travel Channel I'm looking at you...) that spotlights film festivals directly can help in this unwieldy economy where sponsorships can't be counted on anymore to give what they used to give.

    With my many years at film festivals, it's clear the mass public that devours all info on movies still doesn't know that much about them...and more awareness is needed. And the films coming through the pipeline...and the festivals themselves...can both benefit from some kind of branding of the festival model to the movie-loving yet festival-clueless public.

    And since the film market has changed...if film festivals take more of a hand in helping with distribution right after the festivals end (and this programming could be a platform for that)...the buzz that "soon-to-be-released" films can have on the smaller-yet-worthy films also in the festivals could be symbiotic. More films' internet pages could be linked to.... film tickets might be purchased...more films could be downloaded or ordered on VOD...and more festivals could have more tickets purchased, and happier city-hosting travel bureaus will make sure that another CineVegas doesn't shut down for a year...or more.

    -"Film Festival Bob" Giovanelli