Sundance Bound

Well, it’s been just over six months since I’ve written a blog post. Been too busy with client work, and I’ve also not had anything interesting to say, I guess. But the annual trek to Sundance brings me back to some thoughts on what’s exciting me about the fest this year, and a little on the state of the industry.

1. It’s a damn good time to watch indie film
I can barely make it through the Sundance catalogue, trying to make my schedule. It will be another impossible year, with so many great films to see. I know of at least ten awesome movies that weren’t taken, and there’s likely thousands more I didn’t see. 2016 was a great year for indie film, and 2017 continues the tradition. While there are many brilliant docs and narratives (and VR, and…) I am most looking forward to seeing David Yow in I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore. Yes, David Yow of the Jesus Lizard, one of the best bands of the late 80s/90s. I saw them at least ten times live, and he’s got more energy than anyone this side of Shannon Selberg. Hope he does an impromptu show in Park City.

2. It’s a damn good time to sell a film

Buyers galore. Just like last year, you’ve got some deep pockets with Amazon Studios and Netflix on the scene, not to mention the usual suspects, plus you now have Neon, NatGeo upping it’s doc game (competing with Discovery), Bleecker Street, The Orchard, Cohen Media, etc, etc. I could name ten or more hot new-ish companies competing at the ‘Dance. And I hear we’ll hear some exciting news about Amazon Video Direct, and I bet Vimeo as well. BTW, it’s also a damn good time to raise money for films – plenty of film funds in place and launching, and (For some) an expanding economy, plus more people competing to get original content.

3. The Women’s March

The talk of 2017 is going to be all about how filmmakers react to the Trumpocalypse (in fact, the talk started the day after). I’ll likely opine on that later this year, but I’m glad to see a whole gang of bad-asses has put together the Park City Women’s March on Main (FB link). I’ll be there to lend my support, and wonder whether anyone will be in the theaters that morning? All P&I screenings should get a second screening to be safe.

4. Climate Change 

It’s on the agenda in a big way. With a new and much-reported section called The New Climate, Sundance programs 14+ films, shorts and VR experiences tackling climate change. I’ve helped make and distribute 10+ climate change related films in the past year or two (mainly with my client, Patagonia), so I can’t wait to see what everyone else is doing. I’ve also been pretty depressed post election about the possibilities of film changing the conversation at all, so I am hoping to get fired up and energized by these projects.

5. Will DIY die in 2017 (did it in 2016)?

Up until a couple years ago, everyone was speaking about the DIY distribution revolution. Now? Crickets. Sure, I know many filmmakers who hire bookers and do it themselves still, but that’s increasingly when they don’t get many other offers of any significance. It’s much rarer now to see the film that comes into Sundance already announcing they’ll be doing hybrid/DIY distribution. There’s also many fewer aggregator portals to work with (they all seem to want to grow into distributors now, and one’s for sale). I look forward to getting the latest reports from the field at Sundance, but also expect this conversation to continue through 2017.

6. FAANG rules

In the financial world, they refer to the FANG companies – Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google. I add an initial and say Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google. They rule the media world and are gobbling everything in their path. I don’t see how anyone can compete with any of them anytime soon. With Apple announcing they’re moving into original content, and Facebook rumored to be doing the same, you’d have to raise over 300MM to even begin to compete with them on a platform or film service, or as a content maker. In theory that means it’s a good time to be a filmmaker or content maker – and maybe even a distributor. They need films and content. But look at what they’re making. Aside from Ted Hope at Amazon (who for now is mainly making 15M+ films w/ established auteurs), most are concentrating on TV and original series. Talk in the distributor world is that Netflix is buying anywhere from 50-80% less docs than they used to, as well as indie films, and that confirms what it looks like from the consumer stand-point (I can’t find most of the films I want to watch).  I imagine distributors will see deep pockets ready for their better films, but there’s very few of them who understand marketing, especially in an algorithm world, so I could see them being bypassed pretty soon. It’s going to get interesting.

7. Diversity not so much, but it’s got to change

I haven’t had time to run the diversity ratios on the Sundance line-up, but I don’t blame them for the lack of diversity in the indie film world – they do a lot to try to help in this regard. While this year’s indie film landscape was pretty diverse – with filmmakers like Barry Jenkins and Ava DuVernay leading a list of great talent – the overall state of things for diversity, and women in film, remains pretty dismal. As Anthony Kaufman reported in July, 2016 in IndieWire: “This year’s first ever Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity, for example, stated that ethnic minorities constituted only 12% of film directors and only 9% of broadcast TV directors, while over half of all films and TV shows failed to include a single non-white character.”

This must change. The indie film world can’t continue to look like me (white male), and we continue to need more diverse voices in front of and especially behind the camera. Nearly every film organization has a program to address this issue, something Kaufman explores in his very good article above. But the situation isn’t changing, which probably means we need to hold these initiatives for indie film programmers, buyers, execs and theater bookers instead of for filmmakers. I’m willing to bet the diversity ratios for decision makers in this business is even lower than the statistics above, and that influences what gets programmed. For example, there’s been no room for a black female mumble-core (not that they’d want to make that), because these up & coming filmmakers often don’t feel they can even submit to these fests, programmers wouldn’t be inclined to like them nor distributors to find their audience. Tyler Perry made a fortune making films for the underserved Black Christian audience. Well, there’s many more of these underserved niches just waiting for their films, and many mainstream audiences getting tired of only a few Moonlight‘s per year.

8. Subtitle purgatory

Sundance, and most film festivals, have a great selection of international, foreign language cinema each year. And a few big (Sony Classics) and small (Lorber, Grasshopper) distributors take the bigger ones out each year. But there’s a wealth of great foreign films, especially documentaries, that never make it to US audiences in any meaningful manner. I was once a doc buyer for a TV broadcaster, and was told to just avoid most subtitled films. That might be because 14% of US adults can’t read, 29% read at a basic, 5th grade level, and only 13% read at a proficient level (!). Or because subtitles don’t show up well on your iPhone, where 33% of consumers watch streaming services. Or it could be because so few Americans seem to care about foreign countries (64% of American citizens don’t have a passport). But the arthouse audience already skews towards an audience that does read and does travel, I’d bet, but if we watched these films, Netflix and their competitors would be buying more of them. It’s also not a lack of good content – attend any international film fest, and the American fare is often much weaker. Methinks this means there’s another underserved niche to be served. I know EuropaCinemas has an initiative to bring more undistributed films to the US this year (I consult with them a bit), but we need some more initiatives here too.

9. M&A City

Sundance 2017 promises to be M&A city – but meaning not mergers and acquisitions (ok, that applies as well), but mergers and announcements. Everyone launches new products, ventures and endeavors at Sundance, and this year, announcements should be plenty. I expect some new SVOD services, new original content, expansions of existing players, new film funds (I know of at least 4 in development), new slates, new divisions, new films of course, and mergers. We’ve recently seen the acquisition/merger of Gunpowder & Sky and FilmBuff, and earlier last year was Vimeo and VHX. Gravitas has announced it’s looking for a buyer. And that’s just what’s public info. I suspect we’ll see a lot more of this in 2017 while money is flowing, and we might see many announcements in Park City.

10. Virtual Reality and new Media test year

Sundance has what looks to be an amazing line-up of new media – VR, AR, art and panels. I’ve been attending the New Frontier (I think) since it first started, and the past few years it’s been the most exciting and most trafficked part of the festival. I heard a rumor that more people went through New Frontier last year than any other venue (would love to know if this is true). People are genuinely excited about the possibilities when you attend. And of course, billions of dollars have been spent in the sector, with a lot of activity going on. Amazon is moving into the space in a big way in 2017 too. I believe in VR’s long-term importance, but I’ve been unimpressed with nearly every experience I’ve had in VR (but some interesting ones in AR and art), and overall consumers aren’t flocking to it as expected. I think we’ll learn a lot about what’s working at Sundance this year, and 2017 will be a big year for figuring out whether this version of VR will take off or if we need another 5-10+ years of experimentation before virtual becomes reality.

Them’s my quick thoughts heading into Park City 2017. If you are attending, I hope to see you there.

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