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Sundance Institute Pushes Deeper Into Digital Distribution Alternatives–Analysis

Sundance Institute Pushes Deeper Into Digital Distribution Alternatives--Analysis

Two things pop from this week’s announcement from Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute about their “Artists Services Initiative.” First, who it’s for–Sundance Institute filmmakers only–and second, how it contrasts with Robert De Niro’s for-profit New York-based Tribeca Films, which picks up films to release, some of them from its own festival.

Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam hastens to remind that unlike Tribeca, non-profit Sundance is not entering distribution. They’re not doing what say, John Sloss’s Cinetic Rights Management does. Sundance is a trusted institution with integrity that offers tools, access, and aid by setting up systems for a finite batch of curated Sundance alumnae to use. The service works only for films that are branded with the Sundance Seal of Approval. “This is not a fixed solution,” said Putnam. “It’s an evolving process: exciting, and modular…It’s additive rather than competitive.” Putnam is following the model of a music service like TuneCore, knowing that Sundance had to jump into this–before someone else did.

In effect, Sundance will be creating a virtual library of Sundance titles on the web. The filmmakers own the titles, but they carry the Sundance brand. That’s why this new Initiative won’t be broadened out to a larger field of needy filmmakers. Only the new website that Sundance launched Wednesday for its 6000 alumnae, with all its tools and resources about indie funding, marketing, media and distribution, will eventually be open-sourced for anyone who needs the intel.

For now, case studies and contributions from the likes of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“I’m writing you from London to say simply, engage. Engage with these new ideas we’re offering, engage with the new opportunities, engage with this website!), Kickstarter’s Yancy Strickler, Sundance’s John Cooper, indie distributors Paul Federbush and Laura Kim, Strand’s Marcus Hu, Alamo Drafthouse’s Tim League, producer Ted Hope and future thoughts from Magnolia’s Tom Quinn and Sony Pictures Classics’ Tom Bernard are behind a Sundance sign-up wall. “We’re figuring out how to push that content out there,” said Putnam.

Sundance’s rookie exec director is working hard to push these programs into being, and she’s being smart about it. She started last January by bringing Kickstarter to the table, in order for filmmakers to build funding campaigns for production and distribution. As of July 2011, 21 projects from Institute filmmakers have raised more than $650,000 via Kickstarter.

Now she has added other partnerships with New Video–which functions as dealmaker/intermediary between filmmakers and distributors (whether portals Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, YouTube, SundanceNow or iTunes), providing encoding, delivery, accounting and backroom support–and direct-to-fan marketer TopSpin Media, which helps filmmakers such as Kevin Smith to connect with their fans and gain maximum exposure. Non-partial Sundance basically negotiated favorable standardized deals and trademark agreements with these partners, better than the filmmakers could have gotten on their own, providing a safe environment with reasonable and manageable fees and transparent accounting. New Video gets a higher profile as well as more customers, and takes a percentage of the gross that goes back to the filmmaker. The Institute grabs a sliver too, to cover their costs.

Also at the breakfast at the Pacific Design Center was filmmaker Tiffany Shlain (Connections: An Autoblogography about Love, Death & Technology), who joins a list of films (Jess + Moss, Lord Byron, New Low, Obselidia, On the Ice, The Oregonian, Space Tourists, and The Woods) to first join the Sundance Initiative. She’s the web-savvy founder of the Webby Awards, and admitted that other filmmakers may not know how to take the same advantage of these self-releasing and marketing tools. But she’s going to post video diaries about the process on the website to educate others about where she goes right–and wrong. She has already lined up theatrical distributor Palladin, so the next phase is about customizing her options, picking from a Chinese menu, from column A or B. “This is important enough to take filmmakers to the next level,” she said. “All these tools are so empowering.” Shlain looks forward to “testing out these customizable tools. Every film has their own path.”

What Putnam has done is to make the entry into the Sundance Film Festival mean more than a festival berth. So many films these days wind up lost in a heap of films, no matter how well they played or were reviewed–that are deemed unreleasable in the current unforgiving marketplace. Now these filmmakers have a chance, if their fantasy release options did not come through–to proceed through the Sundance Artists Initiative and get their movies released online.

Putnam is expanding on what the Sundance Film Festival already does: offer a platform for films to be acquired for distribution. Now the idea is to provide more opportunities for the projects to reach online consumers via iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, SundanceNOW, and YouTube while still retaining ownership of their work and controlling and customizing their decisions and strategies. The Institute will endorse the projects via its own marketing and promotional efforts and through its social community built over 30 years. 20-year-old New Video will offer all eligible Sundance Film Festival and Lab titles digital distribution, while direct marketing and retail software platform Topspin Media will provide artists with direct marketing tools, as it already does for musicians, filmmakers and authors, to increase awareness of their work and build relationships with fans.
The Bertha Foundation is sponsoring the Sundance Institute Artist Services initiative, while O’Melveny & Myers provided pro bono legal services.

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