The Sundance Lie

Mar 21, 2018

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The almighty Sundance. No other festival in the world is known to have changed filmmaker’s lives so drastically and so quickly as the Sundance film festival. If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve already waxed poetically about premiering a feature film at Sundance and changing the course of your life. You’ve no doubt searched online about how to get into Sundance, stories from filmmakers who’ve won audience awards, and even tried to locate a programer or two to figure out what kind of films they like.

Why is a Sundance premiere so sought after? It’s simple. There’s an unwritten law in the minds of filmmakers everywhere that if your film gets into Sundance that you are immediately accepted by everyone as the real deal. You’ll get offers to buy your film for several times its budget, you’ll instantly sign with a Hollywood agent, and you’ll no doubt have your next film financed as easily as snapping your fingers. Where did this rule come from? Is it something that Sundance says? Of course not.

For filmmakers who have zero contacts in the industry and don’t know how the inner-workings of the business side of filmmaking operate, getting into Sundance is that esteemed winning lottery ticket that everyone dreams about. Can Sundance change or start your career? Of course. Having a film premiere at Sundance can definitely do all those wonderful things every young filmmaker dreams about, but the sad truth is that it doesn’t usually do all that for filmmakers.

Make and Pray Model

Most young filmmakers operate on what I like to call and make and pray model. They make a film that they absolutely love. They pour their heart and soul into it and oftentimes sink their life savings or someone else’s life savings into making the film. And while $50,000 or $100,000 might not sound like a lot in terms of Hollywood budgets (because it’s not) it’s everything that filmmaker has. The goal for the film is almost always the same – to get into Sundance. Short of Sundance filmmakers usually push for the big film festivals: SXSW, Toronto, Tribeca, Cannes, Telluride, and maybe even Berlin and Venice.

Some filmmakers make a movie hoping to get into one of the big top-tier film festivals and when that doesn’t happen they just give up

Why are these festivals held in such high esteem? The truth is most filmmakers don’t even know why but the simple truth is that there are buyers at these festivals. Representatives from all the major distributors who bid on independent films, like The Orchards, Magnolia, Neon, Sony Pictures Classics, IFC films, etc. go to these festivals actively looking for films they can acquire.

While second-tier festivals like Mill Valley, or the San Francisco Film Festival are great and might be cool to add to a resume they are not festivals that buyers typically go to on a regular basis. And if there aren’t any buyers at a film festival it’s more or less just a victory lap for filmmakers to take with their cast and crew.

There’s one piece of this puzzle that nobody really talks about though – a lot of films that go to these top tier film festivals, including Sundance, don’t get offers.

Digital Technology

Advancements in digital technology, which was once thought of as the key to democratizing filmmaking, has proven to be the main cause of independent film’s diluted value. I remember going to film school and being so excited that we were just inches away from being able to go out and buy or rent digital film equipment that was cheap enough to be able to make a film with the same visual integrity as a studio film.

As you may have guessed, I wasn’t the only one who was excited by this notion. Almost everyone with a dream of becoming the next Spielberg or Scorsese managed to buy a digital camera on a credit card and try their hand at making a film. Now, with VOD and streaming services proliferating the market, audiences are kind of burned out on finding great films. One of the reasons that superhero films still do so well is because the crazy amount of visual fx spectacle that they involve in the film is able to set them apart from all the independent films and TV shows that are polluting the marketplace.

Not too long ago…

About ten or fifteen years ago if you had a film that was visually on par with a studio that meant that you had shot it on 35mm or very possibly on super 16mm. Once you spent that kind of money on film and processing and digitizing the footage so you could edit on a computer you were already in the hole financially so much that you typically wouldn’t cheap out on other areas of filmmaking like on grip equipment, lighting, sound or even casting.

If a film with all those boxes checked got into Sundance it was perhaps one of a few hundred features that was submitted that year of that caliber. These days there are thousands of films that meet those requirements and get submitted to Sundance and nearly all of them are rejected. To make matters worse studios are releasing fewer movies and spending more money on the franchise vehicles that they are pushing so it’s not uncommon these days to see films with major A-list Hollywood actors in them premiere at these festivals that were once reserved for filmmakers who were trying to break into the system.

It’s hard to fight a film with A-list actors

So the buyers at these film festivals aren’t just discovering new talent, they’re now making a decision on whether or not to buy a small film that’s starring Keanu Reeves or some drama with unknown actors. As a business decision, it’s very difficult to choose a film with unknown actors and an unknown director over something that has a proven entity like an A-list moviestar. As a result, a lot of movies at Sundance don’t get any real offers for distribution these days.

It’s hard to give real numbers but out of the 100 or so features that Sundance screened this last year, I heard that about 20 of them got distribution offers that actually offered enough of an MG (minimum guarantee) that actually covered the cost of making the film. That leaves over 80 films on the table where making a profit on the film instantly became very very difficult.

Check for yourself

If you have an IMDB pro account you can do a lot of this research on your own if you don’t believe me. Simply look at last year’s line up at Sundance and then cross reference the movie in IMDB pro. You’ll see who the sales agent and distributor are on the right hand column of the film’s page. Here’s an example for the movie Menashe:

You’ll notice that A24 is listed as the distributor. In the case of this film there was no sales agent. It seems that it was acquired directly by the distributor at the film festival but if there was a sales agent it would normally appear above the distributor.

If you look at the distributors that some of these films get, you’ll notice that many of them don’t really have names you’re familiar with. Some companies, like Gravitas, manage to scoop up several films from Sundance year after year but the sad truth is that Gravitas is infamous for not offering any kind of meaningful Minimum Guarantee at all and often make deals with $0 upfront for a film with no intention to release it anywhere other than the VOD platforms like iTunes.

Additionally, as a general rule, small distributors like Gravitas generally don’t do any marketing for the film at all. Why would a filmmaker sign up with a distributor like Gravitas where there is little to no marketing dollars committed to promoting a film and there is no theatrical release? I’m not sure.

Generally these distributors are aggregators more than distributors. They handle the digital prep and Quality Control required to get on iTunes and other digital platforms. Sure, they’ll get you on 90 or 100 digital platforms but the VAST majority of VOD sales still come from only 3 or 4 markets so I’m not sure how useful being on 100 platforms actually is for a film these days.

What does this mean for the filmmaker?

Generally, if a filmmaker ends up going with one of these aggregators disguised as a distributor it means that they are left to do all the marketing of the film on their own while sacrificing anywhere from 15-35% of the backend revenue to the distributor solely for doing the digital prep work. A lot of filmmakers, as a result, are choosing to self-distribute their film so they can reap the benefits of their marketing efforts and opting to pay an approved iTunes aggregator upfront for the digital processing and Quality Control work.

Being forced or pushed into a situation where it makes financial sense to self-distribute and self-market a film after premiering at Sundance is literally the last thing that a filmmaker wants to hear, but it’s the sad reality that has befallen the independent film world.

Even when deals are made they’re not always great

Sometimes films do get offers from reputable distribution companies but the amount of the MG is so small that taking the deal is just not in the best interest of the filmmaker. There’s a great case study on self-releasing that Sundance did on a fantastic little film called Columbus that premiered recently at Sundance in their Next section. The film had a couple name actors in it – John Cho and Kieran Culkin, but it still struggled to get a distribution deal that made financial sense.

The link to the full article is below but the general take-away of the financial side of the post is that the film cost around $750,000 to make and they were only offered an MG of $150,000 by a distributor. They did their own self-distribution instead of taking the deal and managed to clear $600,000 while still owning the majority of the rights of the film vs. earning somewhere around $400,000 if they took the deal from the distributor. Essentially, if they took the deal offered to them at Sundance they would have ate $350,000 of their budget and had very little control over how the film was marketed vs. nearly breaking even and being proud of the way the film was portrayed to the public. It’s important to note that over time they may break even but the chances of making a big profit on the film are pretty small at this point.

Make a film because you love movies

So what’s the answer to all of this? What is a filmmaker to do when they have a love and perhaps even addiction to making movies? My answer is to make them cheaper. Learn how to make films with people who also share your passion and own enough gear to make it happen. The gear has gotten cheap enough that you can, conceivably, make a film for free.

If you team up with a handful of filmmakers and one of you runs sound and the other a camera, you’re really just left to find locations and actors to fill the frame. I know that may be oversimplifying it but really a great story is still key and your cinematography, special fx, and art direction all come in a distant second place to the story.

What if you want to make money?

If you’re getting into the film business because you see that there is money to be made in it, then I think you might be barking up the wrong tree. For the amount of effort and risk that it takes to make a profitable film, you’d be much better off getting into an existing industry that isn’t quite as speculative – like real estate or buying an existing franchise business.

However, if you’re insistent that you want to make money in and only in the film business, I would suggest that you work backwards. There are certain genres that still sell well – like a family or holiday film, but you have to learn who’s buying those titles and for how much.

If I had the money and didn’t have the family obligations that I have with four kids, I would invest in traveling the world and going to all the film markets. I would start with Cannes (which is in May) and start making connections to all the buyers – both foreign and domestic. Find out which titles are selling the best, and how much people are offering for them. Then you can at least work backwards and have some real numbers to work with when you budget out your film.

You might even get to a formula where you know if you make a film for $50,000 or $80,000 and it has these four elements in it that you know you can 2x or 4x your budget in foreign sales. It’s a difficult road filled with a lot of hype and slimy foreign sales agents and crooked distributors, but there is a way to do it if you stick it out and make the relationships you need to understand the entire pipeline.


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