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How Sundance Institute’s Artist Services Program Is Growing Its Ability to Connect Indie Filmmakers With Their Fans

How Sundance Institute's Artist Services Program Is Growing Its Ability to Connect Indie Filmmakers With Their Fans

Launched in 2011, the Sundance Institute’s Artist Services initiative was designed to help Sundance alumni filmmakers get their work in front of audiences in a shifting industry environment that was developing increasing options for self-distribution. The effort has been one of executive director Keri Putnam’s core ambitions since she joined the Institute in 2010, and at this year’s Sundance Film Festival she announced the addition of four new technology companies to Artist Services’ online marketing and distribution suite: Tugg, Vimeo, Reelhouse and VHX.

These new partnerships join those already negotiated with online distribution channels that Sundance filmmakers can use to make their movies available digitally and take advantage of 10 distinct marketing and promotional deals that allow their films to be showcased in the outlets’ user interfaces. Artist Services’ annual workshop took place Jan. 21 in Park City, Utah, during the festival, where 112 filmmakers caught up with these new developments.

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Forty-four titles are currently available through the Artist Services program, including 13 launched last week, says Artist Services associate director Chris Horton. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s documentary “Detropia” (Sundance, 2012) and Cory McAbee’s musical space western “Stingray Sam” (Sundance Film Festival, 2009), which pioneered episodic online direct-to-fan distribution, are among them. “Stingray Sam” is available on Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, Amazon, YouTube and Vimeo — in general, each digital outlet partnered with Artist Services must carry any Sundance film that opts into that outlet, says Sundance Institute digital director Joseph Beyer.

From the beginning, Cinedigm’s New Video has been Artist Services’ exclusive aggregator for digital licensing rights to its feature-length films. “We were committed to improve on the 85-15 split, which was at that time the best deal available,” Horton says, referring to a hypothetical agreement whereby 85% of the revenue received by the aggregator is passed on to the filmmaker. The terms were negotiated by law firm O’Melveny & Myers, who “pounded away at [the deal] with a meat cleaver for four straight months to get us and our artists everything that we needed.” Key to that arrangement was maximizing the rights retained by the filmmakers, Horton adds.

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“We are so pleased to be playing a key role in the Artist Services initiative,” Susan Margolin, co-president of Cinedigm Entertainment Group, tells Indiewire. “This unique relationship with Sundance allows us to bring these important and worthy works to a broad digital audience and aids filmmakers who wish to maintain control of their films through the films’ lifecycle.” Margolin is especially focused on promoting discovery of Sundance films in the increasing crowded digital landscape.

Ava DuVernay, who won the dramatic directing award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, founded the African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement (AFFRM) to distribute her film “Middle of Nowhere.” She is familiar with the Artist Services deals and believes that the economic terms are more attractive than what new filmmakers could negotiate on their own. “I think it’s amazing,” DuVernay says. “I remember sitting with Keri Putnam before they launched the program, because she was interested in some of the things we were doing with AFFRM and she was dealing with artists who were looking at new ways to reach their audience directly.”

Artist Services’ new technology partnerships with Tugg, Vimeo, Reelhouse and VHX extend these efforts. Tugg helps movie lovers choose which films play in their local theaters, opening up the opportunity for them to see Sundance festival films they wouldn’t have otherwise had access to. Once a critical mass — typically 40 to 70 people — has committed to seeing a given title at a given time in a given theater, Tugg reserves the theater, manages ticketing and delivers the film. The filmmakers simply have to drum up the interest. Specifics of the preferred terms for Artist Services are not yet set, but they will include both curation and business terms, according to Tugg CEO Nicolas Gonda.

Well-known IAC video-sharing website Vimeo has a built-in community and a worldwide audience of 85 million monthly users, while Reelhouse provides self-distribution and marketing tools for filmmakers. Like Vimeo, Reelhouse is more finely curated than YouTube. Reelhouse has waived its typical 6% sales commission for films in this year’s Sundance Film Festival and has reduced it for films from prior Sundance fests, says CEO William Mainguy.

Rather than a catalog system, “Reelhouse is about customizing your UX [user experience] and creating a website that is different for each film,” says Beyer.

Newcomer VHX white-labels websites for direct-to-consumer film sales, promising seamless video play across all devices, customer analytics and payment processing. Its recent titles include Dave Grohl’s music documentary “Sound City,” which premiered at the festival Jan. 18 and will be available on VHX starting Feb. 1.

As a whole, these partnerships broaden the variety of options that Artist Services filmmakers can use to try to find audiences for their work. In addition to online distribution, the Artist Services suite includes fundraising and merchandising partners such as Kickstarter and Topspin. Sundance Institute artists have raised more than $3 million on Kickstarter since the launch of Artist Services, and 16 films at this year’s festival used the crowdfunding website.

Topspin senior VP Bob Moczydlowsky laid out the company’s direct-to-fan niche marketing and windowing model at a panel Jan. 19 by presenting the documentary “Bones Brigade: An Autobiography” (Sundance, 2012) as a case study. Topspin’s relationship with “Bones Brigade” director and former pro skateboarder Stacy Peralta grew out of Artist Services and a meeting with Beyer, Moczydlowsky says. Moczydlowsky stresses that the digital distribution provided by Artist Services is just one piece of the puzzle, and that the “problem is fundamentally one of attention: How do I market this stuff and get people to pay attention?” The Topspin model demonstrates one possibility.

Originally open only to Sundance alumni, Artist Services is now becoming accessible to selected films from six festival peers: The Bertha Foundation, BRITDOC, Cinereach, Film Independent, the Independent Filmmaker Project and the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS). The Institute will work with each organization to curate submitted films.

“What Sundance built with Artist Services is phenomenal,” says SFFS executive director Ted Hope, whose blog is part of the Indiewire network. “They put a tremendous amount of time, labor and money into building a best-of-show deal with the top proven entities in this innovative world. They then took it to the next step and said, ‘What we need to do is not just further the Sundance brand, but bring in other collaborators who can help advance its filmmakers.’ It’s really right on.”

Hope admits that the direct-to-fan model exemplified by Artist Services is more easily engaged by films with built-in core audiences, especially documentaries such as “Sound City” or “Bones Brigade.” Traditional narrative films are more challenging to connect with an audience unless the filmmaker has nurtured his or her own community — something Hope emphasizes that all filmmakers should do throughout their careers. “Kevin Smith is the one who’s done it best,” Hope says. “He’s the poster child.”

Who knows: that next “Clerks” could gain its fan foothold by using the growing options available through Artist Services.

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