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The Doctors Are In: Sundance Ponders New Distribution Solutions

The Doctors Are In: Sundance Ponders New Distribution Solutions

“Sundance 2010 is a turning point in independent distribution,” declared consultant Peter Broderick on Monday at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, during an unconventional panel pegged to a moment of emerging distribution opportunities and experimentation for independent films and filmmakers.

Inspired by an indieWIRE article last fall, the forum featured some 15 panelists speaking to the changing nature of independent film distribution and offering solutions and information for the near future.

Moderators Peter Broderick and Eugene Hernandez were joined on stage by Richard Abramowitz, IFC Films’ Arianna Bocco, Fluent Entertainment’s Andy Bohn, William Morris Endeavor’s Liesl Copland, Cinetic Rights Management’s Matt Dentler, filmmaker Sandi DuBowski (“Trembling Before God”), Jon Fougner from Facebook, producer Ted Hope, B-Side’s Chris Hyams, Zipline Entertainment’s Marian Koltai Levine, Tim League from the Alamo Draft House, filmmaker Cora Olson (“Good Dick”), YouTube’s Sarah Pollock, Tom Quinn from Magnolia Pictures, and filmmaker Lance Weiler from Workbook Project.

Part 1: Tradition
Arianna Bocco, Liesl Copland, Ted Hope, Marian Koltai-Levine, Tom Quinn

The afternoon began with a discussion of the potential for Derek Cianfrance’s “Blue Valentine,” a star-driven American independent production made for under $5 million that debuted to positive buzz over the weekend here at the Sundance Film Festival.

Arianna Bocco and Liesl Copland. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

The first round of five panelists sat at a table with the other 10 participants gathered in a semi-circle behind them.

WME’s Liesl Copland, who is selling “Blue Valentine” here, was understandably not able to offer many details on the current deal-making surrounding the film, but gave some insights on what she is considering for the movie. Asked how VOD might factor into a release strategy for the film, she noted, “We may need a number of partners to maximize the potential of the film.”

“Theatrical will drive awareness of the film,” Copland said, highlighting that she also sees awards potential for the movie, adding, “Getting a film like ‘Blue Valentine’ to digital we believe will maximize revenue.”

Later, after the panel, an industry insider who is aware of the sales discussions surrounding the movie speculated that the “Blue Valentine” team may also be exploring a more traditional distribution sale.

The move to incorporate VOD into a release strategy for specialty films has taken hold over the past eighteen months, some panelists said at the session. But, filmmakers and producers continue to ask more questions about the numbers of consumer purchases of films via VOD platforms. Home cable subscribers are spending $7 – $12 to buy a film for VOD viewing at home, with about half of that price going to the cable system and half coming back to the distributor.

Chris Hyams, Lance Weiler, Ted Hope and Marian Koltai-Levine. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

“When I started 25 years ago, I wrote about the opportunity in VOD and I couldn’t get any numbers,” said producer Ted Hope, saying that now, “I still can’t get numbers, so I can’t plan. If distributors want us to keep making good movies that come to Sundance, we need to have numbers we can then plan with.”

Based on general information garnered among a variety of sources, it’s widely known that in some cases VOD can generate as many as 200,000 buys on the highest end for the sort of films released by companies in this sector, or as few as 5,000 for poor performers. That’s a wide range of revenue from this platform that can be as high as nearly $1.5 million or as little as $35,000 before it’s split with the cable operator.

“We’ve been doing this for 18 months so it’s unchartered territory,” explained Tom Quinn from Magnolia, with Arianna Bocco adding, “VOD is evolving for us.”

Matt Dentler, Jon Fougner, and Sara Pollock. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Asked to details the most successful VOD revenue generator of 2009 was Ti West’s “The House of the Devil,” Magnolia’s Tom Quinn said. The film made just over $100,000 at the box office last year, according to Box Office Mojo. He said that the company spent well under $200,000 to open the movie and that they have grossed about $1.3 million before the 50 – 50 split with the cable operators.

“There are a lot of options out there, and you have to get into the nitty gritty of numbers,” continued Bocco, when asked to address some of the issues that may exist about IFC’s approach, “One of the misconceptions is that it costs no money to put something on VOD. It does cost money, but lower P&A than theatrical, but still costs money to deliver a film to [millions of] homes.”

After the panel, participants cautioned that it’s crucial to consier hard numbers in the conext of how much companies are spending in marketing to generate revenue. And on the other side of the coin, even though distributors are embracing VOD as a way to boost revenue for their releases, theatrical is not dead as an outlet.

For the right movie, noted Tom Quinn from Magnolia Pictures, “The system is not broken.” He added, “We still release films the traditional way – in theaters and without VOD. It still works for some films. It depends on the movie.”

Sandi DuBowski, Cora Olson, and Richard Abramowitz. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

“What we’ve lost sight of along the way is the production costs,” summed up Zipline’s Marian Koltai-Levine, cautioning film producers. “Look at who your audience is. Do comparisons with films that were successful. Art and commerce do have to meet. It’s about the disciplines of the cost and seeing the business as a whole.” She added, “‘Bass Ackwards’, [is a] film was made for less than 100,000 and we can experiment.”

Part 2: Digital
Andy Bohn, Matt Dentler, Jon Fougner, Sarah Pollock, Lance Weiler

As the event neared the 45 minute mark, the five first round panelists moved to chairs behind the dais to make way for a new round of participants.

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Digging into Sundance’s partnership to release three new Sundance Film Festival films on YouTube during this year’s festival, Sara Pollack from the online video site was asked to share some numbers on the performance of the Sundance titles, so far. Each of the films, priced at a $3.99 rental fee for users, have seen 200 – 300 buys since launching on Friday.

Tim League, Sundance programmer John Nein, and Liesl Copland. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

“This is new so it will take some time to figure out what success is,” Pollack added, “Starting to build audiences online is terrific. Each person who sees it online is one person who probably won’t see it elsewhere. But we went into this without much expectations becasue this is just so new.” She added that the deals are for a limited viewing window during the festival and they are non-exlusive deals. The filmmakers are not giving up any rights for the YouTube screenings this week.

As the conversation continued, participants advised filmmakers and producers to build fans and aim their work at communities using online tools and networks. From Facebook, Jon Fougner detailed a few tactics for making the most on his company’s social network. Creat a Facebook page for a film and build a community around it, he encouraged.

“Some people say ‘build it and they will come,'” Fougner noted, “And that’s not entirely true, you still need to make some effort.” HIs advice included considering targeted advertising aimed at the page.

“Having some control of the data around your project is the currency of the future,” offered Lance Weiler, elaborating on the issue. “I’m about data portability and transparency.” He encouraged filmmakers to mine and use data about garnered from online sites to support their releases.

Still, these online approaches are not the best way to make back an entire films budget, panelists cautioned. “

For the right film,” Matt Dentler said, “Traditional is not broken. Theatrical, for a number of films, is the best way to recupe production cost.]

Jon Fougner, Andy Bohn, and Peter Broderick. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Part 3: Event
Richard Abramowitz, Sandi Dubowski, Chris Hyams, Tim League, Cora Olson

As the discussion switched to part three, a new round of panelists sat down at a table on stage. The conversation about creating events involving films, to bolster distribution began with Richard Abramowitz who spoke about the recent release of “Anvil! The Story of Anvil.”

“The group toured with the film and those events powered word of mouth,” Abramowitz said, “We took a film and a live event and it was like 1 + 1 = 5.” Continuing, he noted that he recently launched a new company, Area23a, to do the same sort of thing.

“The goal of the new company is to acquire social issue and music films and the idea is to combine event and screening and you can target those subjects’ fans,” Abramowitz said, “We create this army who proselytize to an audience and it spreads the word.”

Filmmaker Sandi DuBowski, who released his own “Trembling Before God” in a similar fashion, generating $1 million, said he was not daunted by the niche nature of his documentary. “Nobody ever said there’s a wide audience for that, but we proved them wrong. We had organizations sponsoring each screening and these sponsorships built an audience. I think I did 800 live events around the world. The question is,” he concluded, “How long do you want to spend time doing this.”

“I think there’s an explosion of opportunity,” continued DuBowski, “There’s a convergence of strategy in the last five years. We’ve had a decade of building to turn movies into movements,” he said, but wondered why the work being done to get social issue films to audiences has not taken root among narrative American independent filmmakers. “I’d like to see a sharing of strategy between the non-fiction and narrative,” he added, listing a roster of organizations that support social issue docs right now:

Lance Weiler, Tom Quinn and Marian Koltai-Levine. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

Active Voice (link, BAVC Producer’s Institute for New Technologies (link), Brave New Films (link), Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation (link, Chicken and Egg Productions (link), Cinereach (link), Films That Change the World (link), The Fledgling Fund (link), The Good Pitch (link), Impact Partners (link), the Sundance Documentary Fund (), Tribeca All Access and the Tribeca Gucci Documentary Fund (link), Workbook Project (link), and many more.

“A lot of these organizations didn’t exist before,” DuBowski said, wondering why similar support hasn’t emerged for narrative films.

“What we’re looking for is can we find an audience for a given film,” offered Tim League from Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse, a movie theater, restaurant and bar in Texas, “We’ve built micro audiences. I don’t have a really big audience for a well reviewed arthouse film with no stars unfortunately,” he added, noting that he is programming to smaller groups.

“Micro audiences that work well: Horror/science fiction fantasy is a big community. That audience is very tech savvy, they follow us on Facebook and they will tell their friends,” concluding the thought, League added, “Even bad movies are good with beer, that’s one thing we’ve learned.”

Another case study considered on the panel was “Good Dick,” a 2008 Sundance Film Festival title that earned $500,000 via a non-traditional release that took it to college campuses. Cora Olson, one of the film’s producers, explined that she charged college’s $1000 to host a screening of the movie, upping that fee to $5000 if they school wanted to include the actor Jason Ritter and director Marianna Palka in the event.

“A $1 million gross for ‘Trembling Before God’, $500,000 for ‘Good Dick’, it’s important for people to know the grosses,” reitered Marian Koltai-Levine from Zipline, near the end of Monday’s session, “It’s important to know what the numbers are for reference. $1 million is not $20 million and these are the successes.”

indieWIRE has invited attendees at the panel to send in responses, reactions and questions about Monday’s Sundance Film Festival panel for publication as we continue to follow-up and cover these topics.

Eugene Hernandez is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of indieWIRE and Brian Brooks is the managing editor of indieWIRE.

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