New Math at Sundance Doesn't Add Up ; Video on Demand Helps Many at Film Festival, but Few Hit Big Money

By Barnes, Brooks | International Herald Tribune, January 23, 2013 | Go to article overview

New Math at Sundance Doesn't Add Up ; Video on Demand Helps Many at Film Festival, but Few Hit Big Money


Barnes, Brooks, International Herald Tribune


Most of the 119 films at the Sundance festival this year will still not recoup their production costs, much less turn a profit, despite video-on-demand and other new distribution models.

After the premiere of a documentary called "Twenty Feet From Stardom" at the Sundance Film Festival here last week, the movie's director, Morgan Neville, shared a blunt anecdote with the crowd.

At the outset of the production, he said, one of the financial backers, Gil Friesen, told him, "I don't want to lose money." Mr. Neville's quick response: "You might have better odds at the track."

That harsh reality endures, despite shifts in the nature of distribution that have made the independent film business healthier than it has been in years. Those changes include meaningful new revenue from video-on-demand services, stabilizing DVD sales and a cluster of upstart distribution companies.

There has already been a flurry of distributor purchases at this year's festival. HBO acquired the documentary "Pussy Riot -- A Punk Prayer," about the Russian radical-feminist rock band, for an undisclosed price. Relativity Media spent about $4 million for "Don Jon's Addiction," a comedy about a man who watches a little too much Internet pornography, and committed to a wide release.

But most of the 119 feature films in this year's Sundance lineup - - even if they do find a distributor -- will still not recoup their production costs, much less turn a profit, producers and agents say. On-demand sales in particular are helping, but they do not yet represent the broad revenue source that many financiers and filmmakers are counting on, said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, a regular Sundance buyer.

With video on demand, Mr. Bernard said, "There is myth information about where the pot of gold is."

Last year, at least 28 movies were bought here by distributors, more than double the number of the 2008 festival -- prompting some chest-beating by Sundance, which strives to bring independent film to broader audiences.

"Beasts of the Southern Wild," bought here last year by Fox Searchlight Pictures for about $1 million, has taken in $11.3 million at the box office and collected four Oscar nominations. The Richard Gere drama "Arbitrage," bought by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions for about $2.5 million, generated $8 million in ticket sales.

"Arbitrage" was also a huge success on video on demand, where it took in about $14 million, according to Lionsgate.

But those films -- held up as examples of what is possible here - - were by far the exception and not the rule. More typical was the comedy "For a Good Time, Call ... ." The film cost Focus Features, the specialty unit of Universal Pictures, about $2.5 million to buy, but it fizzled outside of the festival's clubby confines and took in just $1.3 million at the box office. Of the 28 films bought from last year's festival, 12 sold $700,000 or less in tickets (with several selling less than $70,000); four still have not been released.

And while distributors are chattering about how wonderful video on demand is, most of the agents responsible for selling these films say privately that it is still viewed as a last option, "the deal you take when you can't do any better," in the words of one agent, who asked for anonymity so he could speak candidly. …

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