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Channel boosts less-known indies

September 15, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Hoping to bring more independent films to movie lovers, the Sundance Channel is launching a video-on-demand service dedicated to new titles that haven't received a theatrical release.

Sundance Selects, as the new pay-per-view service is called, is scheduled to start Jan. 1 and will offer about 50 new movies a year that have been curated by Sundance Channel programmers. More than a third of the movies will be nonfiction films, and most (but not all) of the movies will never have made it into the multiplex.

"We think it will democratize and emancipate independent film," said Joshua Sapan, president and chief executive of Sundance Channel parent Rainbow Media.

"The market is hardly efficient. It is increasingly becoming a system in service of blockbusters."

At this year's Sundance Film Festival (which has no ties to Rainbow), 121 feature films were selected from more than 3,600 submitted works. Festival programmers picked 16 documentaries from more than 950 submissions. Although a handful of the films that played in the festival received a theatrical release, many more did not, and the prospects were even bleaker for the movies that weren't accepted into the festival.

The leading distributors of specialized film -- Fox Searchlight, Miramax, Paramount Vantage -- generally acquire movies that they believe will gross more than $10 million in domestic theaters, which eliminates many films from consideration. Smaller distributors may not have the resources to bring their titles to a national audience.

Sapan said that with about 40 million American households equipped for video on demand (either through cable or satellite television), Sundance Selects can "be an equivalent of the in-home art house theater." Although cable and satellite operators will have final control over pricing, Sapan said he expected fees to range between $7 and $8 a movie.

Rainbow's IFC in Theaters (a video-on-demand service for IFC Films currently in theaters) and IFC Festival Direct (a video-on-demand service for movies without theatrical distribution) have shown that some well-received independent films can generate more than $1 million in pay-per-view income, Sapan said. Rainbow parent Cablevision Systems Corp. bought the 12-year-old Sundance Channel this year for about $500 million from founder Robert Redford and partners NBC Universal and CBS Corp.

There are no firm plans to bring Sundance Selects to the Internet, where several new sites (including re:frame and SnagFilms) offer hundreds of specialized movies, including many documentaries, for paid download.

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john.horn@latimes.com

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