Reflections from Sundance 2013

January 28, 2013
posted by sheric
montage 2

clockwise: Julia Stiles Q&A, Slamdance HQ, Dan Mirvish and Paul Rachman at the Between Us screening, on the red carpet for Bujalski’s Computer Chess, Egyptian Theatre on Main, barbershop at the Slamdance opening night party, me with Tiffany Shlain at the Blackhouse Music Room

 

I just returned from Park City, fresh from jury deliberation on the Slamdance short films and conducting video press interviews with some of the Sundance/Slamdance microbudget directors as well as indie microbudget god Edward Burns and Tugg CEO Nicolas Gonda. Those videos will hopefully be edited and uploaded in the next few days. I will post them on this site when they are ready.

photo courtesy of Roberta Munroe

photo courtesy of Roberta Munroe

 

My first day on the ground (January 18) started  at the Blackhouse Foundation where I participated in the Digital Distribution Panel. We talked about the myths, truths, rules and multiple paths to monetize premium content online for those in front of and behind the camera. The discussion featured representatives from Grab Media and Netflix. Basically, it seems that short, episodic content is the name of the game in the online space if you are going to work with the bigger onlinenetworks. Netflix does not take short form content (short films) and Grab Media helps content producers access sites in the AOL network on an advertising revenue share or as licensed, branded content for large corporations. They essentially give your webseries  or ongoing content (news shows, how-to videos) access to thousands of websites that want to host video, but do not produce their own. These sites are presumably highly trafficked so your view count will soar and your revenue share from advertising either you place inside of the video or Grab places inside of it will be much higher than if you just posted it to a Youtube channel. The range on how much you can earn from this is quite broad really. Some producers only earn enough for the light bill, some for a vacation, and some for a mortgage.

Largely, I was there to talk about knowing who you are trying to reach with your work. While I often use the analogy of needing to have a spark (or strong, core audience) before it can spread to a forest fire, another visual that came up during the discussion was a pebble and the ripples. If you don’t have a pebble to start things off, it will never ripple out. I did hear on other panels some contrary advice, but I stand by this analogy. For the emerging filmmaker who does not have an audience, who does not a have a film with notable names, who does not have an acceptance at one of the big 4-5 festivals in the world, and does not have millions of dollars to spend on advertising to a broad and undefined audience, she MUST have a place to start with an audience. Does it have to stay small? NO, but it has to start somewhere and that somewhere is much more difficult when she doesn’t have name or industry attention to aid her. Believe me, if she starts gathering a small but strong core audience, suddenly the industry pays attention and offers help. Start very small, but enthusiastic and build from there.

 

I was also a short film juror at Slamdance and what a great slate of films. As with any deliberation, compromise between gut feelings and personal tastes have to be navigated, but ultimately I think we chose strong talents in the prize winners. Full list of this year’s winners HERE. I can say that there were many talented filmmakers in that pile of shorts and I wish the best to all of them.

On January 19, I attended the Sundance Creative Distribution (#creativedistro) panel with director Ava DuVernay (interview with her coming soon to this blog)  and Topspin Media‘s Bob Moz. It was a standing room only crowd to hear how last year’s Sundance films Middle of Nowhere and Bones Brigade fared with their hybrid distribution strategies. Moz has uploaded his case study presentation on the Topspin Tumblr site, but let me show one tremendous screenshot. When the panel basically said social media just doesn’t “put butts in seat” or result in sales, Moz clicked this up on the overhead (BOOM) and told the panel they needed to up their analytics software…Topspin anyone?

 

bones brigade topspin data

 

It is a pretty powerful reminder that more and more filmmakers who are willing to engage with their audiences (and in cases like director Stacy Peralta, find them again from previous films) by using social channels will be able to cost effectively penetrate the noise of the internet and make immediate revenue (rather than waiting 6 months to a year, if ever) on the road to repayment. As Peralta has said, while receiving some advances from distributors for his past films, he has never received a single royalty check. Sustainability will come from being savvy about building and maintaining an audience.

The rest of my time on the ground in Park City revolved around interviewing several NEXT directors (Shaka King, Eliza Hittman and Andrew Bujalski); a Slamdance director (J.R. Hughto) and Sundance US Dramatic juror, Edward Burns. All are working in the microbudget filmmaking arena, which suits the publication I was representing, Microfilmmaker Magazine. The thing I liked about these interviews was the honesty all participants brought on camera. While other Sundance talent might have looked to position themselves as bigger than they are or perpetuate this other-worldly mythology, all of my interviewees were very humbled by their inclusion in the media circus that is Sundance. In the case of Burns, he offered a different perspective on what it takes to be a sustainable filmmaker in the 21st century. I also interviewed Nicolas Gonda, CEO of Tugg.com, to talk about how filmmakers can empower their audiences to pull films they would like to see in a theater in their cities. Instead of being dependent on a corporation to decide whether a film will play in a city, Tugg enables the crowd to decide and put their money where their mouth is in terms of needing to reach a minimum ticket buying threshold before a booking can be made. Minimizing risk for the filmmaker or distributor and the cinema owners can only be a good thing.

On my last night in Park City, I was lucky enough to have caught a Press and Industry screening of Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight. Since I arrived very late to the line, it was not at all assured that I would get in and I did have to view it from the front row of the Holiday Village Cinema. I am not going to review the film, but I am a fan of the series and was not disappointed in this installment.

Mainly what I felt on the ground this time versus previous times was the dawning of realization that now there are tools in place for filmmakers to use to reach audiences and release films even if the 6-7 figure deal wasn’t offered. While of course those deals were offered to some already, I was heartened to see Sound City and Upstream Color use Sundance as their springboard into the market. They are taking advantage of the media opportunities and recognizing that they may not have films that are mass audience, which is fine. They won’t be taking the chance that their niche film will be ignored in a slate of other more commercial fare. I look forward to seeing this increase as the years roll on at Sundance.

 

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