Every year during the seecond half of January, hundreds of film executives and independent producers fly to Utah for the Sundance Film Festival with the goal to find the Next Big Thing. Who can blame them? Films ranging from Reservoir Dogs to Saw to The Blair Witch Project to Napoleon Dynamite were either sold at Sundance or gained an incredible amount of buzz from being screened at the festival. Some of the most talented directors, writers, and actors of the last quarter century got their start, in part, through their work appearing at Sundance.
Indeed, the Los Angeles Times is reporting that studios are going into this year’s festival with a great deal of optimism, but if 2011 is any indication they may not want to be too positive: by and large the films bought at Sundance 2011 were box office disappointments. 2011 had a huge amount of acquisitions (45, up from 14 in 2010), but none were significant hits. In fact, the list of “significant hits” out of Sundance in recent years is quite short.
The reality is this: the highest grossing Sundance film of the last ten years is 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, which grossed $60 million at the domestic box office. While that’s a great take and the film received dozens of awards, there really isn’t anything else in that range except for 2004’s The Butterfly Effect ($57.5 million), 2004’s Saw ($55 million), 2009’s Precious ($47.6 million), 2003’s 28 Days Later ($45.1 million), 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite ($44.5 million), and 2006’s The Illusionist ($39.8 million). Yes, it’s also debatable whether some of those could even been considered “independent films.” So even counting the 90s boom years of independent cinema, films acquired or premiering at Sundance almost always gross less than $30 million at the domestic box office, with most not even reaching $10 million (only two of the 45 from 2011, Our Idiot Brother and Win Win, grossed more than $10 million each). The point? While some of the best films of the last quarter century have been sold at Sundance, they don’t often make much money.
As a big supporter of indie cinema, I’m certainly not foolish enough to equate box office success with quality. After all, some of the most legendary films that made their mark at Sundance, like Reservoir Dogs, Clerks, El Mariachi, Memento, Bottle Rocket, Donnie Darko, and Garden State — didn’t do particularly big business or become favorites until they were released on DVD.
Which brings me to my next point: Sundance filmmakers and even studios should not ignore all of the new methods of distribution available to market new films. Video on Demand, Netflix, Redbox, online streaming, heck even the tried-and-true direct-to-DVD have all proven to be effective ways to sell films, especially films that have already been filmed, cut, and edited digitally, without going through the expense of striking a handful of film prints to exhibit in a few markets. Yes, while every filmmaker dreams of seeing his or her work on the big screen — and most of the major awards require a film to run in a theater for at least one week — it’s obvious now that skipping a theatrical release, even if your film makes it into Sundance or another major film festival, is a more cost effective method and, frankly, is far more attractive to audiences. As a consumer — and keep in mind I’m exactly the sort of person that is receptive to indie cinema — I’m far more likely to take a chance on a rental costing less than $5 that I could watch with others than I would paying double that for a single movie ticket. In fact, I recently did that with Newlyweds, which director Ed Burns has only screened at festivals and select premieres (check out my review here).
And while I’m not looking at the financial particulars, I’d bet that selling a film via video-on-demand and online streaming nets more money for everyone involved because it eliminates so much of the production and distribution costs of theatrical distribution. Costs can even be brought down further with the low cost of online marketing. Facebook, Twitter, interviews with Movie Buzzers… the potential is endless for free press. If nothing else, social networking has made word of mouth travel even quicker.
And that brings me to my last, and perhaps most shocking, point: while the costs of everything else in entertainment are rising, it has NEVER been cheaper to make a movie… if you do it right. For less than $5000 one could buy a digital camera and editing software, and there is an overflow of talented individuals willing to work on both sides of the camera for little more than doughnuts, coffee, and the slight hope of potential YouTube stardom. While this is undoubtedly a great thing for aspiring filmmakers, it also reveals the problem that we may get to a point where your wonderful film is simply buried by the sheer amount of indie films produced on the cheap (many of which, frankly, will not be very good). It would be smarter for filmmakers and studios to get the jump on these distribution methods — they’re late enough already to the party — before they become oversaturated once the floodgates are open to anyone with a camera and an idea.
So I hope that when studios begin fighting each other over acquiring the “Next Big Thing” at Sundance and other film festivals this year that they think about how to best distribute their investment. While a theatrical run for a film with marketable stars like Little Miss Sunshine or low-budget horror like Saw makes total sense, it’s time to commit to some of these alternate methods of distribution to see what works.
It satisfies nobody if a small production company promises a filmmaker that it will “theatrically distribute” his or her film only to burn it out in one or two theaters just to fulfill the agreement. After all, it couldn’t possibly have been worth it for Magnolia to put I Melt With You or for IFC to release The Ledge in two theaters (grossing just $6,361 and $9,216 respectively!) after spending a chunk of change to acquire them in the first place, or for a filmmaker to send his film to festival after festival (and going into debt) while ignoring other distribution options.
Let’s be honest… the ultimate goal of a filmmaker is to have his or her work be seen, and festivals still do that. But trying to repeat the initial Sundance success of directors like Richard Linklater, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and Kevin Smith in the mid 1990s in 2012 is like trying to become a pop star by only selling CDs: it’s time to try something new.