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Fewer films likely to sell at Sundance

by Andrew Kirk, OF THE RECORD STAFF

If an artist can raise money to make a film, why don’t they raise money to distribute it as well? That’s a question film-industry attorney Steven C. Beer is pushing in anticipation of what he’s calling "a winter of frozen dreams."

People in the industry may recognize Beer’s name from his article in IndieWIRE published Dec. 21 titled, "A Decade of Filmmaker Empowerment Coming" on his "Artist Empowerment Model."

He’ll be at the Sundance Film Festival this week representing two films for sale: "Undertow" (Int’l Film Competition) and "Homewrecker." But he’s also pushing "artist empowerment" because the recession and other factors are changing the selling game and Beers thinks that’s wonderful if responded to in the right ways.

In his magazine article, Beer explains that large distributors aren’t as interested in independent films as they once were. Divisions created for the express purpose of buying, promoting and distributing independent films have been downsized or even shut down.

"Films they spent a lot of money on in Park City didn’t translate well at the multiplex or art-house cinema," he told The Park Record.

That means the old dream of being shown at Sundance and then signing with a major company for big money and instant fame is less and less likely. Nor should it be the dream of every filmmaker, Beer said.

There are countless examples of a movie getting bought, and then marketed poorly. The distribution deals are for seven-year, even 20-year, periods. If a filmmaker sells away control of the work and then isn’t happy with what’s done with it, he or she is powerless to make changes.

Beer cited one example of a film he saw at Sundance a few years ago that was destined to become an instant cult classic among a specific niche audience. For whatever reason, the distributors failed to target that niche, or do so effectively, and as a result it faded into obscurity. A film that could have changed American culture is now just another independent flick sitting on a few library shelves.

"We’re at a watershed for marketing and distributing films," he explained. "Today’s filmmakers can explore a variety of options that assure them greater control."

Vendors can be contracted to do the same work a big-name distributor would have done.

There’s little hope of a big sale this year, and it’s time for filmmakers to move away from that model anyway, he emphasized. The new paradigm requires leadership beyond the festival and into marketplace.

If producers think and plan ahead, they should be able to formulate a business plan for what happens after the final edits and see that their film gets to the people it was intended for.

"It’s less about the name of the distribution company and more about getting as many people to see the film as possible," he said. "That’s where the digital marketplace solves many problems."

Independent films come in all shapes and sizes. Producers are turning to customized distribution strategies that are specific to their goals and the nature of the film. It’s not a one-size fits all game anymore, he said.

This doesn’t mean filmmakers can, should or will do everything on their own; it’s a rare artist who is able to effectively handle business. It just means the producer’s team needs to include experts in these areas.

After all, someone who makes a film may not know the first thing about marketing, but they usually intimately understand audiences.

"They sit in on screenings and listen carefully to audience responses," Beer explained. "They know the individuals and organizations responding to the work and want to make it more available to them."

It’s easy to get frustrated, however, when the filmmaker doesn’t have the resources or manpower to target those "built-in" audiences, he added.

"In a nutshell, they’ve realized producing and marketing the films is a business that requires a business strategy, budget, timetable and a team of experts," he said. "All of which can be created and retained, and not necessarily bargained away to a one-stop-shop major film distributor."

Beer anticipates investors attending Sundance this year with the purpose of offering to fund this new strategy.


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