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No Budget Report - Sundance 2017 Wrap-Up

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The No Budget Report is a series of exclusive articles devoted to the creation and appreciation of no-budget films, written by No Budget Film School founder and independent producer Mark Stolaroff. To receive these reports in your email box, subscribe to the No Budget Film School Mailing List. Archived editions can be found at the bottom of this page.
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What Can We Learn About The
Industry From This
One Festival?
February 2017

Dear Filmmakers,

The following article is an example of the kind of content I intend to create more of once my new web site is up.  If you like this kind of information, please subscribe to my mailing list--there will be plenty more of this to come!


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.

But let's 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...

My Rental Car at Sundance

For 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.

The 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.

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.

Still from L.A. Times
Another "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.

I don't 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. 

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...

First, 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.
Third, 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!

Copyright © 2017 Mark Stolaroff.  All rights reserved. 


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No Budget Report August 2007 - LAFF
No Budget Report March 2007 - Sundance
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