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Eugene Hernandez (2008): A Letter to Filmmakers, Whether or Not You Got Into Sundance

Eugene Hernandez (2008): A Letter to Filmmakers, Whether or Not You Got Into Sundance

EDITORS NOTE: This article was originally published in December of 2008 as the lineup for the 2009 Sundance Film Festival was announced. Check out the complete lineups for the 2011 festival here.

If you got into Sundance ’09 then you already received the call and are probably making plans, likely pondering a “team” that includes a potential publicist or a sales rep. Meanwhile, the nearly 3,500 who aren’t in this year’s line up are strategizing their next steps and pondering which fest to pursue now. I’ve got some tips for both groups. If you are traveling to Park City, proceed carefully and do your homework as you forge new relationships. If you are not heading to Utah, don’t despair just yet, there is life after a Sundance rejection.

I’ve been going to Sundance for more than 15 years now and it remains a great festival for discovering new work. The circus atmosphere that surrounds the fest sometimes gets me down, but no other fest has given me so much personally or professionally and now with the economic downturn, it’s quite possible we’ll see a greater focus on the films, rather than the party and celebrity scene.

Either way, you applied to Sundance for a reason. Asking yourself what that reason was and answering that question may help you focus your strategy, whether or not your film will be screening at the festival.

Congrats! You’re going to Sundance

For the Sundance Class of ’09 — especially those who are new to this — you need to know one thing up front – Congratulations, but now your work really begins! You are heading to Sundance, but merely being a part of the lineup doesn’t guarantee that you or your film are going to get any attention, particularly from buyers and press. Again, what is your reason for applying to Sundance in the first place? What are your goals for the event?

So, let’s be upfront… To those who are hoping to make a sale after your Sundance premiere, it’s important to know that most folks I’ve spoken with agree that this year’s market in Park City will be like no other in that it probably won’t be as robust for big on-site acquisitions. Larger companies seem to be shying away from theatrical acquisitions and right now there are simply fewer large, established distribution entities to turn to. Even so, a range of reps will work with films and filmmakers to field and generate sales interest at the festival. And sure, deals will be made, but the industry and established filmmakers alike are focusing more and more on digital rights and other means of distribution.

Some filmmakers will have decided to sign with a rep to help them navigate the digital space (DVD, VOD, online), while others will opt to hold on to their rights and 100% of all revenues that may come from them in the future. Either way, these are big decisions. Talk with filmmakers and producers who’ve already been down this short path and spend time determing what you need to give up and what you’ll get in return.

I found it rather surprising that at Sunday’s Gotham Awards panel discussion at the DGA, filmmakers nominated for the Breakthrough Director category were rather mixed on signing a traditional rep. “I am curious what a sales rep does now,” “Ballast” director Lance Hammer told the audience, referencing the fact that smaller films aren’t getting theatrical deals right now.

While Lance worked with a rep at Sundance last year, he decided to release his film himself. In retrospect, he indicated that were he to do it all over again, he said he would have booked the film into theaters right out of Sundance to capitalize on the attention “Ballast” generated at the fest – and then he would have focused on how to exploit his digital rights.

Medicine for Melancholy” director Barry Jenkins, who debuted his first feature in March at SXSW tried to find a rep for his film, but was unsuccessful in the outset – yet there is something to live and learn… “We were told you have to have a sales rep,” Jenkins said on Sunday at the Gothams panel, “Bullshit!” Jenkins worked with his lawyer in San Francisco and brokered a deal with IFC Films. Both Jenkins and Hammer cautioned other filmmakers to really get their head around digital rights and to maximize DVD and VOD options, where they feel the real potential for lower budget indie films will truly blossom.

And, they each cautioned filmmakers not to give away all rights.

The domestic repping business is still diverse, ranging from traditional sales powerhouse Cinetic Media to firms such as Submarine and The Film Sales Company, as well as divisions of leading Hollywood talent agencies: CAA, ICM, Endeavor, William Morris and UTA. Importantly, there are a number of strong boutique sales operations built around individuals: Greenberg Traurig, Required Viewing, and Visit Films, not to mention individuals like Jonathan Dana, Jeff Dowd, David Garber, and Ronna Wallace. Most firms take about 10% of traditional future sales for their work, but others require up front cash or a minimum guarantee, and now digital rights reps are requiring larger percentages and exclusivity over a longer period of years. There are many other active sellers and our two-year old indieWIRE survey of the space is sorely out of date. We’ll work on revamping it.

Also shifting is the publicity world. I was surprised recently to learn that Jeff Hill, a 17-year veteran of Sundance, won’t be making the trip to Park City this year. The event isn’t cost effective for his PR firm, International House of Publicity (IHOP), and hasn’t been for years – so, he’ll sadly sit this one out. And, since last year’s fest, another Park City vet, Jeremy Walker bowed out of the PR business altogether. It’s a shame that filmmakers won’t benefit from their expertise at the festival this year.

Keep in mind, not every film or filmmaker needs a publicist. The festival offers PR services and guidance to filmmakers and the many seasoned folks in the press office may be able to answer questions. And those who decide to opt for a publicist have a number of strong options, including a number of veterans who know the ins-and-outs of the fest. There are too many firms and people to mention comprehensively, ranging from outfits such as 42 West, BWR, Falco Ink, ID-PR, mPRm, PMG, Indie PR, Fat Dot and Rubenstein Communications, dominion3, PMK, Murphy PR, David Magdael and Associates, Insignia PR, and Fifteen Minutes PR, as well as boutique companies or those lead by key veteran publicists, such as Donna Daniels, Sophie Gluck, Susan Norget, Nancy Willen, Mickey Cottrell, Michele Robertson, Gary Springer, and Wellington Love, as well as the new Frank PR. [Sorry, this is clearly not a comprehensive list, so please notify me if we missed a key person or company and we’ll revise it.]

As Jeff Hill referenced, setting up shop at Sundance is quite a costly endeavor and firms typically charge filmmakers thousands of dollars for their Park City PR services. It goes without saying that you should do your homework and talk to past and present clients to make the best decision if you decide you need a press rep – and quite honestly, it can be very advantageous if you find the right match!

In the meantime, I’ll give you some free advice, get high quality film stills together now, have clips available in a digital format as well as high res images (and why not post them on a simple website that has information about you and your film). If you are on Facebook, add me as a friend and tell me your film is at the festival so that we can find you when we want to write about your movie here at indieWIRE (And just a plug here, we’ve been covering Sundance for 12 years).

You can do a lot yourself and there are plenty of examples of filmmakers I’ve met over the years at Sundance who work hard, with limited resources, and make a mark at the fest. From Wes Anderson and the “Bottle Rocket” crew with their short in ’93, to DIY queen Sarah Jacobson years later making the most of a local Copy Depot to create low cost materials and hitting the fest with her producer/mom, not too mention numerous recent examples of filmmakers using online tools and resources to create a low-cost presence for themselves.

Sorry you didn’t get into Sundance. See you on the fest circuit soon?

Barry Jenkins, whose low-budget indie film debuted at South by Southwest is an example of many of the opportunities on the horizon for filmmakers who don’t go to Utah. At this very moment, festivals including SXSW, Tribeca, CineVegas and the Los Angeles Film Festival, not to mention Slamdance, are eyeing filmmakers who didn’t get into Sundance. With so few slots, films always fall through the cracks and there are viable festival options beyond Park City (Important! Keep in mind that these festivals as many others have policies regarding “premiere status” so be careful!)

And, some titles will even make their way to Berlin and New Director/New Films in New York (or even Rotterdam) and the many regional fests. Others will find another path.

Developing a smart festival strategy can be daunting and requires a lot of research and conversations with other filmmakers who’ve just been on the circuit. Many seasoned indie filmmakers are on Facebook today, which offers accesibilty like never before to connect with each other and compare notes as you develep a strategy.

A quick Festival snapshot

South by Southwest (SXSW), in March, has emerged as a vital haven for low budget indies and has cultivated a comraderie among a new generation of filmmakers. Similarly, Tribeca in New York (May), the LA Fest in California (June) and CineVegas in Nevada (June) seek to showcase new work for audiences and industry alike. Some fests early in the year, like True/False (February), Silverdocs (June) and Full Frame (March), Hot Docs (April), showcase documentaries specifically.

Obviously these aren’t the only festivals to consider. There are hundreds of options, and each year at indieWIRE we try to attend and cover some of the fests we think are worth attending. You can check out our deep content archive, organized by month and year, here on the site. Among the fests early in the year that we attended in the first third of ’08 were the Palm Springs International Film Festival (January), the Santa Barbara International Film Festival (January), the AFI Dallas International Film Festival (March), the Ann Arbor Film Festival (March), the Cleveland International Film Festival (March), Cinequest (February/March), the Florida Film Festival (March/April), , the Sarasota Film Festival (March/April), and the Independent Film Festival Boston (April). Again this is not a comprehensive list – we’ve covered many more – but we invite you to check out indieWIRE‘s coverage of these events.

As many people in the industry are saying over and over today, for many filmmakers your film festival tour is your de facto theatrical release. Traveling the circuit can generate media attention and build a following for you or your film. But, unless more festivals find money to pay screening fees to filmmakers, there are no tangible revenue streams from the circuit. In the end, it can be a costly proposition to travel from fest to fest. Numerous filmmakers are exploring how to sell DVDs directly on the festival circuit, capitalizing on the attention they get in local markets. There are some obvious immediate financial upsides but also potentially drastic downsides that can impact other deals, so talk to others producers and filmmakers and study the strategies that others have used.

Again, what are your goals and how can your festival screenings help you accomplish them?

Feedback? Questions? Suggestions? Ideas? I invite you to leave a comment below and I encourage others to join the discussion.

[Eugene Hernandez is the co-founder of indieWIRE. He now works as the Director of Digital Strategy for the Film Society of the Lincoln Center.]

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