The year is 2014. Joe the Filmmaker just found out he's going to Sundance with his debut film. His trailer is online the next day. He's got posters at the printer, and a marketing consultant on the phone. In the days leading up to the festival, he hits up bloggers for press, notifies all his Facebook friends and buys ads both online and in print. After winning a special jury prize for innovation during the final day of the festival, he plugs his movie into the IDN (Indie Distribution Network), selling it directly to indie-minded audiences around the country for viewing on their Internet TVs and iPhones, while a percentage of the proceeds feed directly into his bank account. Done.
While we haven't exactly arrived at the above sci-fi scenario, there are established filmmakers who are already planning to bypass conventional distribution. Both Lance Hammer ("Ballast") and Randall Miller ("Bottle Rocket") say if they were to go to Sundance again, they wouldn't wait for a company to acquire their film, but use the festival as a launchpad for a do-it-yourself release.
Most filmmakers, however, still say they're going to Sundance with the hopes of a distribution deal. But now more than ever, they also have a backup plan if the acquisition dream doesn't become a reality.
"The bottom line is that the old model--let's go to Sundance and cross our fingers that someone is going to buy it--is ridiculous," says veteran publicist Cynthia Schwartz, whose firm 42West is repping 15 films at this year's festival and also consults on several DIY releases during the year. "Filmmakers have to take control. If they get a distributor, terrific. But if they don't, they have to have a Plan B. And for the first time at Sundance, I feel like people are getting that."
"Make your own plan. Create your own destiny," continues Schwartz. "That's really how things are going. Use the Sundance prestige to get your opening, not necessarily in February," she adds, "but maybe in April."
But distribution consultant Steven Raphael, who worked closely on Lance Hammer's release of "Ballast," says using Sundance as a platform is a good idea, in theory, but practically, it's far more challenging.
"Some people want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but we haven't completely transitioned yet," he says. "You still have to use the old-school methods." If Joe found out about his Sundance acceptance in November, he'd have just a month to get everything in order, says Raphael. "Are your theaters booked? Are your posters ready? Is your media set? Consultants don't work on projects for four months just to get paid," he adds. "You need four months."
Veteran director Joe Berlinger, who famously self-distributed both his 1992 Sundance Audience Award winner "Brother's Keeper" and his 1996 Emmy-winner "Paradise Lost," says he's prepared to launch a DIY release of his latest Sundance entry, "Crude," a verite look at the infamous "Amazon Chernobyl" environmental lawsuit in Ecuador. "A film like this requires tender loving care and a specialty plan, but if a distributor doesn't think they can do that," says Berlinger, "I'd feel comfortable doing that myself."
Berlinger, who is repping the film himself, says that if he isn't close to a deal by the end of March, he'll start making plans for a summer or fall release. While he acknowledges the difficulties of the theatrical market for "a tough film," he says he has modest financial goals. "I'd be very satisfied to get in 10 to 15 cities, and we have some core constituencies that we can appeal to: There is a greatly underserved Spanish-speaking audience; there is a big and growing environmental audience."
Berlinger also wants to appeal directly to the college market. "A distributor may consider that an educational and not a legitimate theatrical market, but if I self-distribute, I'm going to put myself on a college circuit, where this film gets widely seen," he says. "And if that's the communal viewing experience that most people have seeing this movie, I'll be very satisfied."
Similarly, Kansas-based filmmaker Kevin Willmott, who directed 2004's "C.S.A: The Confederate States of America," which was a surprise hit for IFC Films, sees value in the college market in respect to his new Sundance entry "The Only Good Indian," a revisionist Western starring veteran Native actor Wes Studi. As a college professor at the University of Kansas, Willmott travels with his movies to colleges around the country. "All of that can be nurtured and developed and it can generate revenue," he says.
While Willmott is confident that "The Only Good Indian" will sell to a distributor, he also acknowledges the reality: "If you can't sell your film, you have to distribute yourself." To that end, Willmott says they've already started targeting those communities that would gravitate to the film's provocative subject matter, through radio and online interviews.
"If you run into difficulties selling your film or not, you have to connect with those people who will be interested in the film," he says. "Then it's just a matter of getting it to them."
Visit Films' Ryan Kampe, who is repping Ry Russo-Young's gritty NYC-set character portrait "You Won't Miss Me," says he's in no hurry for the film to reach its core U.S. ticket-buyers post-Sundance, instead planning to build word-of-mouth on the regional festival circuit. "This film has some legs," he says. "It's not just relevant at Sundance, but relevant for the entire year following Sundance."
Kampe admits that there may be a point when they discuss alternative options for releasing the film in U.S. art-houses. However, he adds, "I can't tell you whether it's three weeks after Sundance or six months after."
C Plus Pictures' Mike Landry and Carlos Velazquez will have waited more than a year to launch a DIY theatrical release of their Slamdance 2008 entry, "Frost," which they plan to 4-wall at Landmark's Sunshine Theatre in New York this spring. By then, they're hoping to apply what they learn from the experience to their latest Slamdance 2009 effort, "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead" if it also goes unsold.
With sales agency Traction Media on board, the filmmakers say they'll consider partnering with the company on a limited theatrical release if they don't have a significant deal six months after their Park City premiere. "With digital rights becoming such a hot commodity and you don't know what's going to be next," says Velazquez, "you want to have as much control as possible. There's something empowering about that model."
And it doesn't work, adds Landry, "The only way we can learn is through trial and error."