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Sundance Institute to begin distributing independent films online

Films will be packaged under the Sundance name and offered for viewing on some of the Internet's biggest video platforms, including iTunes, Amazon.com, Hulu, Netflix and YouTube.

July 28, 2011|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times

It's hard enough to get into the Sundance Film Festival — more than 10,000 features, documentaries and shorts were submitted for just a few dozen slots in this year's festival. But it's almost equally hard to leave the nation's top gathering for independent film with a distribution deal. Only a handful of Sundance titles receive a meaningful theatrical release.

Determined to break that distribution bottleneck, the Sundance Institute on Wednesday launched an initiative that for the first time packages festival films under the Sundance name and offers them for simultaneous viewing on six of the Internet's biggest video platforms — Apple Inc.'s iTunes, Amazon.com, Hulu, Netflix Inc., Google Inc.'s YouTube and Rainbow Media's SundanceNow.

The nonprofit institute also will give Sundance directors marketing guidance through its Web-based Artist Services program and a partnership with Topspin Media, a company that makes software for marketing and selling directly to consumers.

Keri Putnam, the institute's executive director, said the pact was driven by the fact that "many of the films that we support are not finding conventional distribution" and that their directors "needed help."

Putnam said the deals allowed filmmakers to retain their copyrights, meaning the online services would not purchase the movies. What's more, the deals would not be exclusive to any one platform, so a film could be shown simultaneously on competing sites.

Filmmakers would receive a share of advertising revenue or proceeds from a rental or purchase.

Although the festival yields a bidding war or two every year — in January, for example, the romantic drama "Like Crazy" sold for $4 million — many movies attract scant buyer interest, leaving the films' backers buried in debt. Online deals can occasionally reach $1 million, but many contracts for streaming sites typically pay much less. Furthermore, festival films are often obscured by more star-driven, bigger-budget studio films.

Sundance filmmakers interested in participating in the new deal would see their movies packaged with other festival films and promoted under a Sundance-branded channel, theoretically improving their chances to be discovered by fans of art-house fare.

"If someone Googles 'Sundance,' they will find our film," said Cara Marcous, who produced "On the Ice." Her thriller about Inuit children in Alaska premiered at Sundance this year but did not attract a distribution offer that she believed was good enough to repay investors in the less-than-$1-million production.

Marcous said the online terms she now could negotiate for "On the Ice" were much better with Sundance's new initiative than without it. "There's no comparison," she said.

John Sloss, a sales agent for independent film who also runs the video-on-demand service Cinetic Film Buff, said he welcomed the Sundance announcement, even if it presented the potential for competition.

"I think it's a good development for filmmakers," Sloss said. "And they're doing it in an elegant and thoughtful way."

john.horn@latimes.com

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