What Can We Deduce About The Whole Indie Film Industry From This One Festival?
|Sundance. Yes, Sundance. People like
to say it, people like to throw it around, people even like to go there, ("Sundance, Baby!"), and even sometimes,
people like to see movies there. Probably more than anything, though, people like to make grand conclusions about the state
of the market, the industry, moviemaking, society, and whatever else you like, from this small sample of films and filmmakers
who are granted entrance into this magical filmmaking garden.|
not get TOO hyperbolic! First, a sample size of 125 feature films is pretty small statistically speaking to make any serious
conclusions. Second, Sundance's sample is somewhat corrupted by the many dubious demands placed on the programmers, pulling
them in many different directions. You can see it when you view a film like A Ghost Story right up next to a film like Deidra And Laney Rob A Train. How could
these two films be in the same festival?? Third, few of the people who go ever see any more than a small percentage of the
films on display, but that's never stopped anyone from extrapolating out. Yes, Sundance is like that proverbial Elephant,
viewed upon by the blind, who are asked to conclude what an elephant is by touching only one part of it.
I will mostly spare you the grand conclusions (mostly), but since I did see 28 feature films this
year, and since it is my 22nd year in a row attending the festival, I feel somewhat qualified to generalize about the festival,
the films, the industry, and the state of humanity circa 2017.
If you read anything about Sundance
this year, you read it snowed. Now, if you've never been, you might say, "Duh! It takes place at a ski resort!"
But I have to concur--it not only snowed this year, it snowed mightily, maybe more than I've seen in all the years I've
been going. A picture says a thousand words--if you look closely, you can see my hardly-driven rental car...
|A SELLERS' MARKET|
the last several years, I have kept a little spreadsheet of all the deals done at the festival and in the month or two after.
I try to list every film that was picked up, the distributor, the sales rep, the reported price paid, and little notes like
the exact rights sold or other bits of information about the sale. You'll hear different things about this year versus
past years as far as sales activity, but by my empirical analysis, I would have to say that this was a very robust year, both
in terms of the number of films that sold and in what was paid on average for them, (as far as we know...only some deals report
numbers and even in those cases sometimes the numbers can be conjecture). Not counting all the films that came to the festival
with distributors already in tow, by my count, 40 films have been picked up so far (including a few that were announced right
before or right after the festival). That compares very favorably to last year, where there were only like 30 films that sold.
And yes, while there were no films commanding the $17.5 million that Birth Of A Nation received from Fox Searchlight
in 2016, this year's films seemed to command more on average. Without getting too statistical, last year there were 10
films that got an over $1 million deal. If you take out the Birth deal andManchester By
The Sea's $10 million deal, the other 8 films were paid under $5
million a piece. This year you had 22 deals over $1 million, and around 11 of them were over $5 million, including 2 over
$12 million. That's pretty impressive and as I go through my spreadsheets over the years, unprecedented. 2015 was a strong
year, but only 17 films had deals over $1 million, and none of those were over $10 million.
other couple of developments worth pointing out: many more films were willing to make deals before the festival started, (likely
to what were perceived by filmmakers and their reps to be rich deals), and of course, as you've already heard, the two
online companies--Amazon and Netflix--were especially active. Amazon bought 5 films; Netflix picked up an incredible 10 films,
(a couple of these deals were announced before the fest began, but it doesn't include films that Netflix financed). By
comparison, the former big company on the block--Fox Searchlight--only came away with 2 films, as did A24. I think this says
as much about the state of theatrical distribution for independent films as it does about anything else. Companies like Searchlight
and A24 deal in that world; Amazon and Netflix have completely different business models. Netflix is all about keeping and
gaining subscribers. Amazon, famously, is all about selling socks. Also, these two companies are driven by big data, something
the traditional distributors don't have. And Netflix just has a shit-ton of money to make and buy programming--$6 billion
per year. What's most impressive about the Netflix deals is just how big each one of them was: $12.5 million for Mudbound; $8 million for To The Bone; $5 million for Icarus, a documentary no less(!), and others. Let's hope that some of this buying spills over into other
festivals this year, like SXSW and Tribeca.
|WHAT DID YOU LIKE?|
You go to Sundance, you're asked "what did you see" and "what did
you like." If you love movies, this is one of the joys of attending. Everywhere, people are asking and answering these
questions, and talking deeply (or not) about what they saw, what those films meant, how they think they'll do, etc. When
you see 28 films in only 8 days, what you see starts to blur together. You find you can't remember what you saw earlier
in the day. I've done this many, many times, (I once saw 6 films in one day at Sundance, with tickets no less, which is
just about impossible, if not completely miserable). So, what did I like? For me, there wasn't that home run film that
just blew me away beyond all others, but that may be because I'm getting older and I've just seen so many movies at
this point, it's hard for a movie to do that to me anymore. Yet, I did see several that I really enjoyed...
If you're a fan of The Daily Show's Jessica
Williams, then you'll enjoy The Incredible Jessica James, a lightweight, but funny film that showcases the young comedian's special
charisma. A lot of films dealt with relationships this year; some, like Jessica James were funny, others were straight-up
dramas, like Alex Ross Perry's Golden Exits, which I probably enjoyed more on reflection than in the moment. Perry's
style is very specific and you either love it or hate it. I found the story interesting for two reasons: you have several
interrelated characters who are either single and lamenting how much they want to find that "someone" to be in a
relationship with, or they're married and completely miserable and fed up with their partner. Ah, the human condition!
Also, while there is a lot of talk about diversity these days, especially in the independent film scene and especially at
Sundance, where there are always many films featuring characters and stories about people of color or people from other cultures, Golden Exits is
that throwback "white people's problems" movie--specifically, upper-middle class New York white people. No judgement
here, just an observation.
"white people problems" movie, though set in LA, and very funny, is writer/director/actor Michelle Morgan's NEXT Section feature L.A. Times (pictured
above). To me, this film about Millennials coupling in LA felt like Swingers did 20 years ago--fresh and NOW.
Some of it was hit and miss, but there were some absolutely hilarious moments. Another relationship "dramedy," again
featuring white people, was the Dramatic Competition feature Band Aid, about a married LA couple who fight all the time, but before ending their marriage,
decide to start a band and write songs about what drives them crazy about each other--kind of a Fleetwood Mac Rumors thing. The film is both very funny
and also serious and moving at times. Written, directed, produced and starring actress Zoe Lister-Jones, it uniquely features an all-woman crew. [Band
Aid was picked up by IFC, but no numbers were reported]. Landline, Gillian Robespierre's follow-up to her debut feature Obvious Child, one of my faves from the
2014 Sundance, also dealt with the difficulties of marriage and fidelity, but this time set in the 90's. I'm a big
fan of Jenny Slate, who with Edie Falco and John Turturro lead a great ensemble cast, and I really enjoyed this one, too.
[Landline was picked up by Amazon
for "mid-7 figures"].|
Another one of my favorites was the black comedy Ingrid Goes West, featuring a blistering performance by Aubrey Plaza
and a terrific turn from Elizabeth Olsen. If you're ready to see the whole Instagram celebrity culture get skewered, then
don't miss this film. It nails it's subject up on a wall and then shoots it through with arrows. [Neon, Tom Quinn
and Tim League's new company, picked it up]. I also enjoyed Patty Cake$, one of the big hits from the festival (standing ovations, $9.5 million Fox Searchlight
deal), but not as much as I was expecting. I should mention that I get an Industry Pass each year and see all my movies in
Press & Industry screenings, rather than public screenings. While press and industry are not oblivious to emotional outbursts,
it's not the same as seeing the public go bananas for a film, (I still remember seeing Happy Texas many years ago, and that audience
reaction was through the roof; unfortunately for Miramax, who paid big money for the film on the spot, things were different
in the cold, hard reality of the real world). That's not to say Patty Cake$won't be a hit, but I'm skeptical. It felt familiar (Hustle & Flow-ish) and a little long and predictable.
make a point of seeing foreign films or docs, but the nature of the way I view movies at Sundance means that I will inevitably
see some of these regardless. I thought the Grand Jury winning doc Dina was fascinating, not only because of the
subjects (a middle-aged Asperger's couple who are getting married), but also because of the way it was shot. This is the
kind of documentary with no talking heads, where they follow the subjects around, and yet, I don't believe there was a
single handheld shot in the movie. [Dina was picked
up by The Orchard]. I was also really impressed with (and moved by) City of
Ghosts, one of the three Syria documentaries
in the festival. Not to get political, but if you want to know why we should be taking in Syrian refugees, see this movie.
Like many (most?) Americans, I've been mostly oblivious to the whole Syrian crisis.Ghosts comes at the subject from a very unique perspective, that of a group of citizen
journalists who start reporting on what ISIS is doing to their city of Raqqa. In a word, it's devastating. [City of Ghosts was picked up by Amazon for $2 million]. I
also saw Raw, a French horror film that played in several fests like Cannes before screening in the Spotlight Section at
Sundance. I will say, the trailer for this film is
probably much better than the actual film, but there were still many jaw-dropping moments. Colossal, another Spotlight film that's played in
a number of previous festivals, (that's the deal with Spotlight, while films in other sections are World Premieres), was
a big letdown for me. I just thought it was stupid.
Yes, I saw Mudbound, which Netflix paid $12.5 million for, and I think it will be
a prestige film that could make back that investment; and I saw Brigsby Bear that Sony Pictures Classics paid $5 million for, and
I don't think that investment will pay off. One of the more interesting titles I saw, and you won't hear much about
this one, is the Premiere Section film Where Is Kyra?, an exercise in bleakness, and I don't necessarily mean that in a bad way. Michelle Pfieffer
and Kiefer Sutherland star in this beautifully shot, meticulously designed, overwhelmingly heavy drama that really no one
will want to see, despite a great Pfieffer performance, confident/bold directing by Andrew Dosunmu, and a jarring/terrific score by Phillip Miller.
DOES IT ALL MEAN?|
Ok, so what grand conclusions can I make from this
year's Sundance? What might be helpful to all of you, no-budget filmmakers who aspire to reach that holy ground some day?
Well, this is why I go to Sundance every year, to try to answer this question for myself. What is Sundance looking for? What
is the state of the industry? Where are things going artistically and technically? I don't believe these questions are
easy to distill, and again, that Elephant, but here's my perspective...
if feels like more and more, no-budget films are not finding a place in the festival. I wouldn't have said that just a
couple of years ago, (though others have been saying that--wrongly--for years). Sundance is certainly a showcase for the best
and brightest of what indie film has to offer, and for the last 15 or 20 years, that has meant bigger budget, star-studded
films, but even in that environment, there has always been room for the micro-budget indie with no stars, whether you hear
about those films or not. I've featured guest speakers in my classes over the years with just those kinds of movies, films
like Bellflower, The Great World Of Sound,
It Felt Like Love, Lovers Of Hate, and many others. But it's starting
to seem like those films aren't finding their way into the festival now. I think it's because there are just so many
quality films being made at higher budget levels that they're crowding out the micro-budget attempts. That's probably
a good sign--maybe it's easier to get $250k-$500k to make a film with these days. I probably saw a couple of those for
sure, (Dayveon was
likely made for around $250k and L.A. Times could have been made for under $500k; certainly Gook was made for around
or under that amount). But I'm not seeing the $10k or $50k or even $100k films I used to see. Those seem to be hitting
SXSW and other festivals. My advice to you, though, is the same, if you want to premiere at Sundance--don't spend your
life trying to raise $500k; make a bold, unique no-budget film with vision and a different perspective. There will always
be a place for films like that at the better festivals. Anything short of that will get ignored by the Indie Elites. Sundance
can always smell "playing it safe."
|Second, the market for prestige indie titles is
still strong, though likely propped up by the two SVOD companies in the hen house. The theatrical market for indies, however,
is suffering, and what's left after that is something a little more frightening--day and date and online distribution.
For most filmmakers, even those with Sundance films, that kind of distribution seems to be replacing dollars with pennies.
If you don't walk out of Sundance with an advance, I think you're going to find it very difficult to recoup with this
kind of distribution. It's great for distributors, who don't have to outlay much and who collect their fee then recoup
what they spent before the filmmaker makes back anything. But if you've spent $250k or more, it's tough to get that
back this way. Of course, I'm just guessing at this, based on my own experience and the experience of friends--no one
is really willing to share this reality publicly because it makes their projects sound like failures. There are ways to get
around this eventuality and certainly there are exceptions to these rules, and I look forward to sharing what I discover on
my road to distributing DriverX, a film I self-financed that didn't get into Sundance this year.|
technology news seems relegated to VR. I didn't spend any time looking at that stuff, but it was a big part of the festival
this year in various ways. Will it become mainstream entertainment? I really couldn't say. As for feature filmmaking,
though, technology didn't seem to be the story this year. No iPhone movies. No sneaking into Disneyland with a DSLR. In
fact, almost all of the non-film shot movies were shot on the same camera--the ARRI Alexa. (I did see two films shot on 16mm film. One of them was probably the worst looking film I saw at the festival). Cameras
are not the big story anymore, as we've probably reached a point of diminishing returns as far as camera technology goes.
You can shoot on one of the Alexa variants or you can shoot on any number of other great cameras out there, many very affordable
to filmmakers, and it really doesn't matter which one. It really only matters what you do with it and what you put in
front of it. That lesson has always been the same.
Fourth, and perhaps the hardest thing to ascertain, what are
they looking for? This is nearly impossible to answer, since we have no idea what's really going on in those decision-making
rooms and the evidence--what they actually found and programmed--gives us nothing conclusive, or rather, gives us so many
different answers to choose from. Here's my attempt to summarize my own thoughts on that question. Have a vision and a
voice and be distinctive, especially the lower budget you are. Conventional, audience-friendly, accessible movies play at
Sundance, but they're usually made at higher budget levels and with name actors, (one of many examples this year would
be Wilson starring Woody Harrelson). To be distinctive, you have to take risks as a filmmaker,
and that can be very hard to do. Yes, Sundance is looking for unique stories, from different corners of the country and the
world, featuring diverse players and told by diverse voices, but more than that, they're looking for truth. If you're
white and male and telling the truth as you know it, (and especially if we haven't really heard that truth yet), then
go with that. You have to be honest. And like I always say, you have to be Unique. And while the production value bar seems
to have been raised, judging from this year's films compared to past years', don't get caught up in that game.
You have to think about story first. Good production value for the sake of good production is worthless. Good production value
can make a good story better; it doesn't make a bad story good.
Fifth, it snows in Park City. Bring warm clothes,
including a hat and gloves. Waterproof your pants and shoes. DON'T rent a car!
© 2017 Mark Stolaroff. All rights reserved.
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