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Eugene Hernandez: The Doctor Is In.

Eugene Hernandez: The Doctor Is In.

New York, NY, January 11, 2010 — Next Thursday, the 2010 Sundance Film Festival will kick-off in Utah, ushering in a new decade of American indie cinema. This week, before the fest begins, we’re going to spend some time pondering where we are and where we’ve been by looking at the current and recent state of the film scene.

For more than twenty years, the indie film community — the loosely connected network of filmmakers, festival programmers, critics and bloggers, executives, and others — have set their watches by Sundance. This year is no different, except that the role of this festival is changing before our eyes.

Four films — two new and two from last year’s fest circuit — will launch into digital distribution concurrent with this year’s festival, a first for Sundance and a first for a festval of this magnitude. Events including Cinequest, SXSW and IDFA have pursued digital distribution of fest films, but the moves by Sundance and its filmmakers to try and capitalize on the attention garnered by the festival marks the emergence of a new, unproven model at a time of change for the film business.

After unveiling the lineup for the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, even as they publicly downplayed plans to pursue distribution initiatives this year, festival organizers sent a letter to accepted filmmakers inviting them participate in a new initiative aimed at expanding the event onto cable VOD via Rainbow Media’s new Sundance Selects platform run by IFC Films. Three films signed on for the experiment, two of which have screened at other fests, including Michael Winterbottom & Mat Whitecross’s “Shock Doctrine” from last year’s Berlinale and Benny Safdie & Josh Safdie’s “Daddy Longlegs” from Cannes ’09.

The IFC team also pinpointed Daniel Grau’s “Les 7 Jours du Talion” (7 Days) from Canada, while separately producer Thomas Woodrow partnered with Marian Koltai’s Zipline Entertainment and New Video to develop a release strategy for Linas Philips’s “Bass Ackwards” the day after the 2010 festival concludes this year.

In the case of the IFC/Sundance fest slate, the company has acquired the three films and will release them on VOD for one month timed to next week’s debut at the festival. The titles will hit other IFC Films windows after the festival, with a theatrical release for the Safdie’s “Daddy Longlegs” in the works.

Meanwhile, Thomas Woodrow has struck a distribution agreement with New Video for Philip’s “Bass Ackwards,” rather than selling the movie. The company will take a percentage on the digital release which will be available on all cable systems and other outlets via Video on Demand and Download to Own platforms, New Video’s Erick Opeka told me last week. They are also rolling out the film in early February. Some systems and platforms will have the film early in the month, Opeka said, while it will hit throughout the month on others, similar to the recent digital release of Chris Smith’s “Collapse,” he added. Asked to detail the specific systems and dates, Opeka said that it’s industry protocol to avoid details until the film is actually available on the system, but he reiterated that the movie will be available for purchase to tens of milions of cable households and sold on, “all of the major digital download platforms.” iTunes and Amazon? We’ll just have to wait and see.

Backers of these four films are betting that the profile for Sundance is high enough to draw immediate interest from moviegoers who will want to see the movies immediately. Clearly, such an approach won’t work for all of the movies that go to Sundance, higher profile films with big names will try to find distribution via a traditional Sundance sales model that has become well known over the past decade. As for these four specific films,those involved are confident that it will work.

“Sundance is special because it garners international attention,” IFC Films head Jonanthan Sehring told me last week, citing today’s inherent challenges of releasing indie, international and documentary films theatrically. He said that riding on the coattails of Sundance means more attention for these movies in the marketplace.

“You are never going to capture that moment better than a Sundance premiere,” Sehring added. “For a lot of first time and second time filmmakers, this is their moment. Whether they even get a second chance to grab that ring, or that center of attention, that may never happen again.”

“This is shattering the windows,” New Video’s Eric Opeka said, in a separate conversation, “You are taking it to an audience at the peak of interest.”

Back in October, I asked, in a weekly column, “Is There a Doctor in the House”?

“I invented this fucking business, OK?” was the brash retort from Harvey Weinstein dating back to a private meeting he had years ago, reiterating his dominance over the modern indie biz. Now, things have changed and new models are emerging. The business of releasing indie, foreign and doc films is being reinvented, but how it will evolve remains to be seen.

In two weeks, during a unique panel and workshop at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday, January 25th, I’ll be moderating – with Peter Broderick – an in-depth look at these new developments. In the words of Sundance Senior Programmer John Nein who conceived of the idea for an event that will feature dozens of voices, “Our interest is not in rehashing the problem, but in creating an interactive, workshop dynamic that encourages a discussion of solutions.”

“Filmmakers used to make films as calling cards and they would cede that calling card in the hope of making other films, Erick Opeka told me last week, “In this case, they are keeping control of their films.”

“This is the future,” Jonathan Sehring reiterated to me, “Will we tinker with this model? Yes. But, is there any going back? I dont think so.”

More to come this week, next week and during indieWIRE’s fourteen days in Park City.

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

12.21.09: New Year, New Model | 12.14.09: Tracking the Critics | 12.07.09: The Future of Festivals? |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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