It’s 1 p.m. on sunny Friday afternoon at the Palms hotel in Las Vegas. Hundreds of scantily clad twenty and thirty-somethings are swarming the outdoor resort area at the hotel, standing in and around the multiple pools, cabanas and deck chairs. Many are drinking from super tall tumblers that are shaped like a woman’s body wearing a red bikini. The music is thumping so loudly that it can be heard in rooms that are in a tower 20 stories above. The scene looks like MTV Spring Break, but it’s just another week at the casino’s all day “Ditch Fridays” party.
Nearby, a group of casually dressed acquisitions executives are seated around a large table at the hotel’s adjacent, outdoor Mexican restaurant, eating lunch and observing the increasingly drunken gathering. Some are comparing notes on the movies they’ve seen so far, others are sharing industry news and gossip. After the brief poolside pow-wow, though, it’s back inside for screenings at the popular CineVegas Film Festival.
Depsite the huge mob of folks partying at the pool, there are big crowds gathering simultaneously on the other end of the casino, filling screenings at the Brenden Theaters multiplex adjacent to the hotel’s food court. Even early afternoon mid-week showings are jammed. Artistic director Trevor Groth and newly promoted head of programming Mike Plante are in the lobby, near the red carpeted ‘step-and-repeat’ festival banner greeting guests and making sure things continue as smoothly as possible.
Insiders and filmmakers seem to love this festival for its low-key Sin City vibe and consistent programming via Sundance vet Trevor Groth. Parties continue into the wee hours and morning screenings don’t start too early. For the filmmakers who have their world premiere here, a sizable contingent of buyers are in place for screenings at CineVegas. Folks from Lions Gate, IFC, Paramount, Magnolia, Miramax, Sony, Oscilloscope, Summit, Liberation and Arthouse, as well as numerous critics, journalists and bloggers, liken the event to SXSW in Austin. A place to work in a more casual environment. The perfect post-Cannes summer film retreat.
Amidst all the inherent distractions in Vegas, it deserves repeating that people are watching movies here. Organizers have crafted their event around the sprawling Palms resort and the programming is a rather smart mix of mostly artsy debut features, commercial summer specialty films, and tributes to folks like the Kuchar Brothers, Willem Dafoe and Jon Voight.
Groth has been here for eight years now, joining the festival early on and taking it in a new direction that he will continue to pursue even though he is now head of programming at Sundance. Films that may not work at Sundance, or projects that just aren’t quite ready, have a summer outlet that can assure they will remain on the radar of industry insiders. Outside of Sundance and SXSW, few other American festivals can boast such an array of buyers in the audience for work that in most cases doesn’t have name cast on screen.
Of course, getting seen by buyers is only half the battle. Few fests draw buyers, but even when they do, even fewer companies are actually paying money for low-budget independent films today. Film festivals are primarily a vanity theatrical distribution circuit that doesn’t put any money back in the hands of the filmmakers themselves. Let’s face it, a small percentage of the films that have a debut at premiere American fests from January to June (Sundance, New Directors, SXSW, Tribeca, LA Film Fest, Full Frame, etc.) — no matter how good they are — will have a life beyond DVD or an online platform. And those that do will have to be distributed in mostly DIY, self-funded fashion by the filmmakers or producers themselves.
With that in mind, Cinevegas organizers staged a unique filmmaker brunch/panel discussion/game show. Today’s Distribution Roulette showcased eight distribution experts who shared insights and advice with festival directors and producers.
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“We need to band together to find new ways of getting these films out there,” advocated Trevor Groth at the event, prior to introducing the concept. The contestants for the game show were filmmaker Todd Sklar from Rangelife, Christian Gaines from IMDb & Withoutabox, CAA’s Dina Kuperstock, Tom Quinn from Magnolia Pictures, IFC Films’ Arianna Bocco, B-Side’s Chris Hyams, Cinetic’s Matt Dentler, and David Fenkel from Oscilloscope. Each had to spin a wheel to pick a fictitious project for which they had to detail a distribution plan.
Fenkel from Adam Yauch’s young Oscilloscope spun the wheel and landed “hip subculture doc.” Smiling he noted, “it’s so easy,” elaborating a plan for releasing the movie. Meanwhile, Dina Kuperstock from CAA passed when landing “edgy, sexy indie,” saying that it would be a tough sell with no stars. But, then when she spun again, she got ‘quirky character doc’ or a movie about an artist that has been on the festival circuit but generated no reviews. “That’s even harder,” she admitted, laughing, before explaining a detailed, informed and comprehensive approach to building buzz while also generating revenue for such a film.
“I’m a firm believer that linear distribution is over,” stated IMDb’s Christian Gaines when he landed a fictitious “demanding character study.” Going from a film festival to theatrical distribution to DVD is not a viable path anymore, he noted. Instead, with such a movie, filmmakers could utilize Amazon’s CreateSpace and VOD services while continuing to pound the pavement on the festival circuit, hyping the movie via Facebook, on Twitter and on their own website. “Really really focus on selling this film unit by unit by unit,” Gaines said, “Giving it as long a run [as possible], seeing spurts of sales festival by festival.”
IFC’s Arianna Bocco was thrilled when she spun the wheel and got a fictitious film described as having a “transcendent aesthetic,” a film that is critical favorite, over two hours in length, and features acclaimed performances by unknown actors. She compared it to her company’s recent “Hunger.”
“A film like that, on VOD, isn’t going to work really well, but we’ll do it anyway,” Bocco quipped, noting that combining both theatrical and VOD would make it work financially. She added, “With a movie like that, if you don’t get good reviews, you are dead in the water.”
“We’re probably the only company that would release the ‘transcendent aesthetic’ movie,” Bocco laughed.
Cinetic’s Matt Dentler designed a release plan unifying all of the contestants. “I am going to ask that we spearhead an alliance [between all of these companies],” Dentler said, “I don’t want the whole pie, I am willing to share the pie, unlike my colleagues here.” Smiling he added, “I don’t care about how much money I make, I want to make money for the filmmakers!” Dentler’s boss, John Sloss, smiled nearby while the other contestants groaned and heckled good-naturedly.
But, it was Tom Quinn from Magnolia Pictures who won the contest. “I’m gonna nail this,” he boasted when he took his turn, before offering his detailed approach to marketing and releasing that aforementioned “edgy, sexy movie.” His plan involved targeting strippers as key influencers to spread the word. He’d release it on his company’s Ultra VOD platform before taking it to theaters, maybe even releasing the movie with multiple endings to generate buzz and get people talking about it on Facebook and Twitter.
“We are at the dawn of an era where we need to be [trying] new things content wise and distribution wise,” Quinn said.
Cinevegas continues through Monday in Las Vegas. Check out the schedule for the festival via indieWIRE’s partnership with B-Side’s Festival Genius. More coverage to come soon from Vegas.
Eugene Hernandez is on the feature film jury at CineVegas ’09