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How Sundance Is Trying to Make Smaller Films Profitable With Self-Distribution

For the first time, the Sundance Institute is helping one of the festival's alumni with distribution and marketing to explore a new model for festival films.

John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson in Kogonada's Columbus

“Columbus”

The distribution dilemma faced by “Columbus” was a familiar story for Chris Horton, who six years ago moved to Los Angeles to launch Sundance’s Artist Services. His mission was largely to figure out how he could help Sundance leverage its influence and relationships to help filmmakers that didn’t have an all-rights distributor in place. Horton has helped over 200 festival films access distribution tools – for example, striking a favorable deal with aggregator Quiver for indie filmmakers to gain access to various digital platforms. What was missing was a soup-to-nuts understanding of the self-distribution landscape that had radically changed with the emergence and unprecedented growth of of subscription VOD platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Early this year, Sundance renamed Artist Services to the Creative Distribution Initiative, and with the rebranding came an expanded mission.

“We felt the need to provide a more immersive experience to films, more resources, more insights to really pioneer something that can make a difference in 2017, where things are so much different than they were six years ago,” said Horton.

The Sundance Institute’s lab programs – which support filmmakers from everything to meeting potential financiers to scriptwriting mentorship to supporting a sound mix – have proved to be a powerful and effective force in helping a number of independent filmmakers get their first features made, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Ryan Coogler and Marielle Heller. It became obvious to Michelle Satter, founding director of the Institute’s Feature Film Program, that a robust expansion into distribution and marketing was now necessary as well.

Cary Fukunaga workshops "Sin Nombre" at the 2006 Sundance Directors Lab

Cary Fukunaga workshops “Sin Nombre” at the 2006 Sundance Directors Lab

Sundance Institute

“This about our ‘full cycle of support’ approach to helping filmmakers and producers exerting their artistic independence,” said Satter in an interview with IndieWire. “It’s a choice by the filmmakers and producers [to] retain control of their project, to approach distribution in an entrepreneurial way and be directly involved in the revenue stream. If we can help figure that out, it could be a key to career sustainability not only for filmmakers, but independent producers too.”

Inspired by the Institute’s immersive approach to the artist labs – there’s never been a marketing and distribution lab at Sundance – Horton is leading the Creative Distribution Fellowship.

“For years, people have tried to self-distribute movies and some have had modest levels of success in different ways – some have had success with grassroots outreach, some have had success on VOD,” said Behrens. “No one has put it all together until this Sundance fellowship.”

One of the biggest challenges Behrens encountered is the demands SVOD platforms place on how quickly they want a film to be made available on their platforms after the theatrical release.

Haley Lu Richardson and Rory Culkin in Columbus

“Columbus”

Elisha Christian/Superlative Films

“The biggest frustration that I’ve had my eyes opened to is the windowing and how inflexible [it is],” said Behrens. “If we find out there truly is an appetite for this film and we’re building awareness, there’s a very short window of time to exploit that [via VOD] – maybe only 30 to 60 days.”

Horton knew the key to Sundance helping building a sustainable self-distribution model that was a true alternative was to use the organization’s power to negotiate a basic agreement with the big three SVOD platforms.

“We knew it was going to be important to us to have a subscription VOD option that could guarantee a set amount for each film that isn’t just a backstop, but a true alternative if you have that drive,” said Horton. “Amazon, Netflix and Hulu have all agreed to a floor, a guaranteed license fee that allows filmmakers to do VOD and transactional digital prior to that SVOD start date.”

Horton and Satter make it clear the fellowship is an experiment and not yet a permanent fixture. Their hope is that their experience with “Columbus” and “Unrest” (scheduled to hit theaters in September) is the start of something bigger. They are demanding full transparency from both films, which will be key data points in a robust and comprehensive case study they are hoping will inspire other independent films and the expansion of the Initiative.

unrest

“Unrest”

“It’s giving this test run and hopefully it’s not just for us,” said Behrens. “We’ve agree to be really transparent, so other filmmakers have a road-map. For me as an independent producer, if at the end of this if I see this as a viable path forward than next time I’m making a million dollar movie am I going to raise another $150k, or whatever the number ends up being, to replicate this self-distribution process? Maybe, and that’s a little scary, but Sundance’s support in helping me figure this is out is a crucial first step.”

Columbus opens at the IFC Film Center in New York and the Nuart in Los Angeles on August 4.

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