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How Sundance Institute's Artist Services Program Is Growing Its Ability to Connect Indie Filmmakers With Their Fans

By Jon Fougner | Indiewire January 29, 2013 at 12:20PM

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.
"Bones Brigade: An Autobiography"
"Bones Brigade: An Autobiography"

Well-known IAC video-sharing website Vimeo has a built-in community and a worldwide audience of 85 million monthly users, while Reelhouse provides self-distribution and marketing tools for filmmakers. Like Vimeo, Reelhouse is more finely curated than YouTube. Reelhouse has waived its typical 6% sales commission for films in this year’s Sundance Film Festival and has reduced it for films from prior Sundance fests, says CEO William Mainguy.

Rather than a catalog system, “Reelhouse is about customizing your UX [user experience] and creating a website that is different for each film,” says Beyer.

Newcomer VHX white-labels websites for direct-to-consumer film sales, promising seamless video play across all devices, customer analytics and payment processing. Its recent titles include Dave Grohl’s music documentary “Sound City,” which premiered at the festival Jan. 18 and will be available on VHX starting Feb. 1.

As a whole, these partnerships broaden the variety of options that Artist Services filmmakers can use to try to find audiences for their work. In addition to online distribution, the Artist Services suite includes fundraising and merchandising partners such as Kickstarter and Topspin. Sundance Institute artists have raised more than $3 million on Kickstarter since the launch of Artist Services, and 16 films at this year’s festival used the crowdfunding website.

Topspin senior VP Bob Moczydlowsky laid out the company’s direct-to-fan niche marketing and windowing model at a panel Jan. 19 by presenting the documentary “Bones Brigade: An Autobiography” (Sundance, 2012) as a case study. Topspin’s relationship with “Bones Brigade” director and former pro skateboarder Stacy Peralta grew out of Artist Services and a meeting with Beyer, Moczydlowsky says. Moczydlowsky stresses that the digital distribution provided by Artist Services is just one piece of the puzzle, and that the “problem is fundamentally one of attention: How do I market this stuff and get people to pay attention?” The Topspin model demonstrates one possibility.

"Sound City"
"Sound City"

Originally open only to Sundance alumni, Artist Services is now becoming accessible to selected films from six festival peers: The Bertha Foundation, BRITDOC, Cinereach, Film Independent, the Independent Filmmaker Project and the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS). The Institute will work with each organization to curate submitted films.

“What Sundance built with Artist Services is phenomenal,” says SFFS executive director Ted Hope, whose blog is part of the Indiewire network. “They put a tremendous amount of time, labor and money into building a best-of-show deal with the top proven entities in this innovative world. They then took it to the next step and said, ‘What we need to do is not just further the Sundance brand, but bring in other collaborators who can help advance its filmmakers.’ It’s really right on.”

Hope admits that the direct-to-fan model exemplified by Artist Services is more easily engaged by films with built-in core audiences, especially documentaries such as “Sound City” or “Bones Brigade.” Traditional narrative films are more challenging to connect with an audience unless the filmmaker has nurtured his or her own community — something Hope emphasizes that all filmmakers should do throughout their careers. “Kevin Smith is the one who’s done it best,” Hope says. “He’s the poster child.”

Who knows: that next “Clerks” could gain its fan foothold by using the growing options available through Artist Services.

This article is related to: Sundance Institute , Sundance Film Festival, Artist Services, Filmmaker Toolkit: Distribution, Filmmaker Toolkit, Vimeo , Tugg, VHX, Reelhouse, Kickstarter , Topspin

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