Monday, December 05, 2005

The future for indies: Buh-bye, Sundance, hello web!

The Sundance Film Festival has, for about 15 years now, been the place for indie filmmakers to get their wares seen, and so many prominent careers have been launched from within its snow-covered auditoriums it's staggering. But are those days over? Looks like it. More and more, Sundance has become the place for major studios to show off their "prestige" releases while at the same time allowing them to claim the sort of art-before-commerce cred usually reserved for the indie crowd. In other words, don't look for too many more precocious Hispanic kids with $7,000 home movies to even get in, let alone secure major development deals.

Robert Redford's brainchild recently announced its 2006 premiere lineup, and what do we have? A bunch of good stuff, I'm sure, but, in the words of IndieWire (emphasis added)...

...Sundance organizers made the announcement today, also unveiling the roster of high-profile, often star-driven, titles that will screen in the event's Premieres section...

Get that? Sundance has, it appears, been assimilated. If you have to have a "high-profile, star-driven" movie to be considered an "indie" film by the festivalistas these days, where does that leave, you know, the real indie filmmakers?

I'll tell you. The internets!

Have you heard about this little Finnish flick called Star Wreck: In the Pirkinning? Go have a look. This is a feature-length Star Trek parody, as you might have guessed by the title, shot by a bunch of Finnish Trekkers (I swear, you couldn't make this shit up!) over a period of seven years, with CGI effects work done on their Macs and PCs. Downloadable for free over their website, it has now become the most viewed Finnish film in history, with an audience of over 3 million so far!

Now one has to make allowances for a few mitigating factors. For one thing, this is the latest in a long lineup of Star Wreck movies, so it comes from a fairly established fandom subculture. (If the filmmakers needed a particularly obscure prop they couldn't afford to buy, it was usually a matter of days before someone mailed it to them.) But there are several other factors to consider, too. While the movie itself is a free stream, a great many folks who watched it were perfectly willing to support these guys with a DVD purchase. Also, there's the sheer size of the viewership. Translated into $8 movie tickets, this viewership would have accounted for $24 million in US box office had the movie been released that way (a full $11 million more than this season's joke Aeon Flux did in its opening weekend). But — here's the kicker — had it been released theatrically, it's a safe bet 3 million people wouldn't have gone to see it! And, by allowing viewers to simply download it, they've eradicated the piracy factor — you can't pirate what anyone can get for free! — while tapping into a fan base of whom a large portion will be happy to fork over the price of a DVD as an altruistic support-the-artists gesture, and because they like the movie. (The IMDb page for Star Wreck shows an average viewer rating of 7.7 out of 10.)

By comparison, I decided to look in on the current status of three of the 2005 Sundance Festival's highest-profile alumni — Hustle & Flow, The Squid and the Whale, and The Dying Gaul — to see how their performance, both financially and critically, compares to that of this web-distributed fanfilm. First, a quick hands up from those of you who have heard of none of these movies. Okay.

Of the three, the $8 million-budgeted hip-hop drama Hustle & Flow is faring the best. Critics like it, and so do audiences (7.3/10 IMDb rating), and since it's been in limited release, it's taken in $22 million. Also, star Terence Howard is being pushed as an awards contender.

The Squid and the Whale is a huge critics' darling, and audiences who've seen it like it too (7.8/10 on IMDb). But that audience has, so far, been very small; it's only made about $3.2 million in its first month. Off a $1.5 million budget, that's fine, as they're already profitable. But in terms of asses-in-seats, it's still far fewer than a million people, and this is a movie with stars, including an Oscar nominee (Lauren Linney) and winner (love of my life Anna Paquin).

Finally, The Dying Gaul is faring least well. Starring Patricia Clarkson — who's been in virtually every low-to-mid budget movie made in this country since she did Being John Malkovich — the movie's only got a 6.1/10 IMDb rating, and, conservatively released on only 20 screens, hasn't even made 200 grand in three weeks. Critics have been far less enthusiastic, too.

Conclusion? If a little labor-of-love web feature can reach a bigger and more supportive audience than many of the movies that not only get selected by Sundance (a jaw-dropping average of 26,000 movies are vetted and rejected by the festival every year), but then go on to secure the brass ring of a theatrical distribution deal while there, then the question for indie filmmakers to ponder is: Wherefore Sundance? Should you even bother? Certainly, you should acknowledge the festival's stature in the industry and make your movie as if you were fully confident of its securing a berth on its sanctified lineup. But is it the end of the world if you can't even come close to getting in? I think not. Because sitting on your desk right in front of you is the world's largest multiplex. If you, as a filmmaker, are confident of your film's quality, and you take the time to learn how to use internet publicity to your advantage, then there's no reason your movie can't reach a vast audience by bypassing the traditional festivals-to-theaters distribution paradigm entirely and going right into people's homes, over their cable modems.

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