Sundance Institute hopes to clear the fog around film distribution
For Parkites, the Sundance Film Festival is a chance to see the film industry’s best and brightest for two star-studded weeks in January. Behind the scenes, though, many filmmakers fight simply to have their work shown outside Park City once the festival ends.
Making a film is complicated enough on its own. Writing, funding, casting, shooting and editing a film is a tall order, but it’s only half the battle.
Finding distribution for the film is the other part of the equation. If a film isn’t distributed, it doesn’t make money. And for a film at Sundance that doesn’t find a good home, the audiences in Park City may be the only people who ever see it.
But the distribution process can be intimidating for filmmakers to manage, particularly as the emergence of streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon has made the environment even more complex.
“As the marketplace evolved in the past few years with the Sundance Film Festival … the streaming, video on demand and theatrical distribution possibilities for independent film have really changed,” said Chris Horton, director of the Creative Distribution program at the Sundance Institute.
More than ever, filmmakers are exploring a new way to navigate the landscape: doing it themselves.
The Sundance Institute, which puts on the annual film festival in Park City, has noticed the trend and sees an opportunity to help filmmakers going the self-distribution route. The organization started the Sundance Creative Distribution Fellowship last year with the goal of helping independent filmmakers find distribution for their work. In 2017, the Institute granted two fellowships to films shown at the festival: one to “Columbus,” a narrative feature, and one to “Unrest,” a documentary. A public case study of “Columbus,” which details the process, pitfalls and triumphs of the distribution project, was released recently, and one for “Unrest” is forthcoming.
With the fellowship program, Sundance provides a number of resources, like a guaranteed $100,000 marketing and distribution grant, to filmmakers. In return, the filmmakers put together their own team and distribute the film themselves rather than going to an outside firm. It provides a level of independence not found when a filmmaker works with a distributor, but requires much more time and effort.
Horton said the organization hopes to “drive advances in marketing and distribution” of films with the initiative.
The “Columbus” team, including producers Giulia Caruso, Danielle Renfrew Behrens and director Kogonada, worked far closer to the distribution effort than many crews do, though it wasn’t because of a lack of interest from distributors. Horton characterized the decision to self-distribute as a choice between taking a safe outside deal versus gambling on higher returns.
“‘Columbus’ premiered at the festival kind of hoping for that dream deal like lots of films do and so they did get traditional distribution offers by very well-known distributors,” Horton said of the film’s team. “They decided, ‘You know what, the best offer we have is a sixth of our budget; why don’t we do something more creative where we roll the dice on ourselves?’”
Caruso said the fellowship was a valuable learning experience.
“Everybody involved was very generous with their knowledge and their time,” she said.
Making a plan
Caruso isn’t new to Hollywood. However, having worked in Los Angeles for nine years, the Italian-born founder of Nonetheless Productions said the Creative Distribution Fellowship gave her more of an understanding of how distribution works than she ever had previously, and also allowed her to work on a distribution plan tailored specifically to “Columbus.”
“It was really exciting; it was really hard,” Caruso said. “Distribution is one of the parts of this industry that is shifting continuously. … The way people watch movies is changing constantly.”
There were a few quirks about self-distribution that hit Caruso, most notably the balance of the micro and the macro.
“One of the most challenging things was that you constantly have to shift between very small decisions and very big decisions,” she said. “You’re deciding the wording on a tweet and then you’re making big decisions as to how many theaters you’re going to open in.”
The film, which is described as a “lyrical drama,” is the story of an architect (John Cho) who finds himself staying in small city of Columbus, Indiana, a town known both for its Cummins engine plant and concentration of modernist architecture. Kogonada, whose roots are in film criticism and creating video essays, shot the film on location with an emphasis on Columbus’ sweeping environments.
The release of “Columbus” defied expectations of what it means to distribute a film in the 21st century. While the original plan had been to release it both in a small number of theaters and on digital services simultaneously, one of the consultants the team hired pushed for a limited theatrical release before it hit the web, according to the case study.
That strategy proved crucial to the film’s success, as it eventually reached about 200 screens after premiering in several major metros as well as Indianapolis and Columbus (The Indiana markets remained a major driver of revenue for the rest of the theatrical release).
The arthouse film came away with a box office pull of a little more than $1 million, more than recouping its budget of $700,000.
Horton emphasized the published case study as key to helping educate filmmakers on distribution. The documents are several thousand words long and incorporate interactive elements like raw data, glossary definitions of industry jargon, and more.
“My No. 1 dream for these case studies is that there’s a filmmaker reading this that hasn’t even made their first feature yet,” Horton said. “Maybe in two years that film premieres at Sundance or another film festival, but having read the case study … that filmmaker is going to know so much more about how this business works.
“I really see value in what we’re doing for the movies that are worth supporting, that are worth bringing to audiences, that support our mission, that may not have those life-changing deals in front of them,” he added.
As the Sundance buyer’s market changes year after year, so do the trends in the larger film industry. Things ebb and flow. For example, Arianna Bocco, vice president of acquisitions at IFC Films, a distributor that partners with Sundance, said this year’s festival saw a smaller presence from digital heavy hitters like Amazon and Netflix.
While “Columbus” showed that there is still significant interest in theatrical releases of independent film, Horton says that Sundance’s fellowships will be designed to account for the rapidly shifting landscape of film distribution. It also recognizes that self-distribution isn’t the path for everyone.
“It’s not for us to say necessarily we want filmmakers to do self-distribution,” Horton said.
“People ask us if we would do it with another movie, and I think, yes, for the right movie,” Caruso said. “I don’t think it’s the right way to go for every movie because it takes a very specific kind of movie and a very specific kind of team.”
In the future, Horton hopes to expand the program to allow for more films. A case study for “Unrest” is forthcoming, and the selection process for fellowships for films that appeared in this year’s festivals ongoing.
“Who knows what this landscape is going to look like two years from now?” Horton said. “What we want to do is continually support filmmakers who have really innovative ideas that all of our resources and support can help unlock.”
Caruso hopes that, in the future, the program will come closer to providing a way to make independent film sustainable.
“A lot of great films are made and they go to the festival and they’re barely seen,” she said. “It’s a bit of a bigger question that we’re all asking, and I think the more people ask questions the more of a chance we’ll get a good answer.”
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