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by Jon Fougner
January 29, 2013 12:20 PM
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How Sundance Institute's Artist Services Program Is Growing Its Ability to Connect Indie Filmmakers With Their Fans

Launched in 2011, the Sundance Institute’s Artist Services initiative was designed to help Sundance alumni filmmakers get their work in front of audiences in a shifting industry environment that was developing increasing options for self-distribution. The effort has been one of executive director Keri Putnam’s core ambitions since she joined the Institute in 2010, and at this year’s Sundance Film Festival she announced the addition of four new technology companies to Artist Services’ online marketing and distribution suite: Tugg, Vimeo, Reelhouse and VHX.

These new partnerships join those already negotiated with online distribution channels that Sundance filmmakers can use to make their movies available digitally and take advantage of 10 distinct marketing and promotional deals that allow their films to be showcased in the outlets’ user interfaces. Artist Services’ annual workshop took place Jan. 21 in Park City, Utah, during the festival, where 112 filmmakers caught up with these new developments.

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Forty-four titles are currently available through the Artist Services program, including 13 launched last week, says Artist Services associate director Chris Horton. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary “Detropia” (Sundance, 2012) and Cory McAbee’s musical space western “Stingray Sam” (Sundance Film Festival, 2009), which pioneered episodic online direct-to-fan distribution, are among them. “Stingray Sam” is available on Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, Amazon, YouTube and Vimeo — in general, each digital outlet partnered with Artist Services must carry any Sundance film that opts into that outlet, says Sundance Institute digital director Joseph Beyer.

From the beginning, Cinedigm’s New Video has been Artist Services’ exclusive aggregator for digital licensing rights to its feature-length films. “We were committed to improve on the 85-15 split, which was at that time the best deal available,” Horton says, referring to a hypothetical agreement whereby 85% of the revenue received by the aggregator is passed on to the filmmaker. The terms were negotiated by law firm O’Melveny & Myers, who “pounded away at [the deal] with a meat cleaver for four straight months to get us and our artists everything that we needed.” Key to that arrangement was maximizing the rights retained by the filmmakers, Horton adds.

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“We are so pleased to be playing a key role in the Artist Services initiative,” Susan Margolin, co-president of Cinedigm Entertainment Group, tells Indiewire. “This unique relationship with Sundance allows us to bring these important and worthy works to a broad digital audience and aids filmmakers who wish to maintain control of their films through the films' lifecycle." Margolin is especially focused on promoting discovery of Sundance films in the increasing crowded digital landscape.

"Middle of Nowhere"
Ava DuVernay, who won the dramatic directing award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) to distribute her film “Middle of Nowhere.” She is familiar with the Artist Services deals and believes that the economic terms are more attractive than what new filmmakers could negotiate on their own. “I think it’s amazing,” DuVernay says. “I remember sitting with Keri Putnam before they launched the program, because she was interested in some of the things we were doing with AFFRM and she was dealing with artists who were looking at new ways to reach their audience directly.”

Artist Services’ new technology partnerships with Tugg, Vimeo, Reelhouse and VHX extend these efforts. Tugg helps movie lovers choose which films play in their local theaters, opening up the opportunity for them to see Sundance festival films they wouldn’t have otherwise had access to. Once a critical mass — typically 40 to 70 people — has committed to seeing a given title at a given time in a given theater, Tugg reserves the theater, manages ticketing and delivers the film. The filmmakers simply have to drum up the interest. Specifics of the preferred terms for Artist Services are not yet set, but they will include both curation and business terms, according to Tugg CEO Nicolas Gonda.

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