Sundance and The Contradictions of Independent Media

Park City, Utah is “hot” in mid- January, hot every mid-January as the Sundance Film Festival gets started. I’ve attended the festival, but couldn’t make it this year. Friends’ reports and press coverage, however, makes it clear that as Sundance gets hotter, it gets more commercial. 

Before Robert Redford and company took over the bankrupt USA Film Festival in 1978, Park City was a sleepy town, famous among ski- bums. At the earliest Sundance festivals, indie specialty films were celebrated. Then, with sex, lies, and videotape in 1989, Sundance was discovered and indie film transformed. The festival changed from cheap hotel rooms to no rooms; from easy entry to films to only tickets for players; from passionate conversations to monologues by cell phone-toting wannabes. This year, celebrities were on full display. No less film-industry icons than Paris Hilton and 50 Cents drew the paparazzi’s fevered attention. Al Gore was cheered. Many progressives attended the Creative Coalition symposium and dinner. Others were in Park City to promote their latest flicks, including Robert De Niro, Bono, Patti Smith, and Sarah Jessica Parker, to name but a few. 

Sundance is the premier U.S. film festival. It annually draws a new crop of dedicated filmmakers and launches the careers of many acclaimed independents. And, for all its success, it is a venue where the boundaries of art and business, creativity and commerce, independence and cooptation get blurred, redefining each. 

Sundance relects the changes transforming not only indie film, but the media in general. The numbers tell the story. Officially, more than 3,600 feature films were submitted for consideration (2,021 domestic and 1,603 international), but only 121 were selected for screening, including 87 world premieres and 55 by first-time filmmakers. (Newsweek reports that 8,731 films were submitted.) Thus, the proportion of selected features to the formally submitted is roughly 3 percent. While no official numbers exist, this 3 percent is probably close to the ballpark of films annually produced to films theatrically released in the U.S. 

A combination of factors fuels this overproduction. The expansion of colleges and technical programs offering media degrees is producing an explosion of talented media makers; the run-up in the fortunes of the nouveau riche leads many into the movie business as either producers or investors; the expansion of distribution options, especially broadband services, requires more product to fill the pipeline; and a structural change in Hollywood production leads to an increased reliance on indie product. As the U.S. economy devolves into recession, a contraction of the movie business is likely. 

According to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), worldwide box office sales grew by nearly 51 percent between 2001 and 2006, up to $25.8 billion from $17 billion. However, during the same period, U.S. domestic box office increased by only 23 percent, to $9.5 billion from $7.7 billion; 2007 box office was flat at $9.6 billion. While U.S. box office revenues increased, movie ticket sales have been flat, up to $1.45 billion in 2006 from $1.42 billion in 2001. The increase in box office revenue was due to the 16 percent increase in the ticket price, to $6.55 from $5.66, during this period. 

Between 1993 and 2006, the average cost of movie production more than doubled to $65.8 million from $29.9 million, reflecting the blockbuster model of rising fees for star talent and special effects. (MPAA estimates that the full cost of a studio film in 2006 topped $100 million when the $34.5 million for marketing is added.) 

During this same period, the studios adopted a release strategy best conceived as “vacuum cleaner launch” for the promotion of overpriced blockbusters. They have systematically increased the number of theaters for the opening weekend to maximize marketing efforts (especially the impact of TV ads) and to quickly suck-up ticket sales. For example, the number of theaters screening The Matrix Reloaded in 2003 was 3,603 screens, up 33 percent from the 2,404 in 1993 for Jurassic Park; Hollywood crossed the 4,000 screen launch with Shrek 2 at 4,163 in 2004; last year’s blockbuster, Spider-Man 3, was launched in 4,324 screens. 

The MPAA reports that, between 1999 and 2006, the total number of films released in the U.S. increased 35 percent, up to 599 from 442 releases. Over the same period, non- MPAA (i.e., non-studio) movies increased to 66 percent (396) from 52 percent (229) of the total releases; in 1985, non-studio films accounted for only 43 percent of all releases.

These factors—flattening box office revenues, Hollywood’s increased reliance on blockbusters and vacuum cleaner marketing— are indicative of a major shift in the movie business. More expensive but fewer blockbusters are being promoted at more theaters with an increased reliance on indies to make up the difference. This creates a very unstable environment for movies, but an instability that just might provide a unique opportunity for indies. 

A film’s theatrical release is the most important of a growing number of distribution options, especially for indie films. Film festivals play an all-important role, generating early word-of-mouth recognition and critical reviews (“buzz”) to help makers get a distribution deal. Sundance, along with TriBeCa and Toronto, are among North America’s leading festivals. For indie makers, Austin’s annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival is the place to be. For ten days, it brings together some of the leading indie musicians, filmmakers and interactive media makers. For more political films, the Human Rights Watch festivals play a critical role. For those renegade indies who want to stick it to Sundance, there’s the Slamdance festival, which runs in parallel to the paunchy movie-industry celebrity shindig. 

Home video is the most important ancillary distribution option. It is driven by the shift from analog to digital, from VHS to DVD and now to HD. This shift has fueled an explosive growth of titles available to fill the rental and sell-through pipeline, whether available at a local Blockbuster or Wal-Mart, at a specialty retailer, Internet site, or via Netflix. Another is the growing number of cable channels being made available with the transition to digital television. Finally, and the most important long-term option, Internet digital video distribution is creating a means for the easy availability of a world- wide flood of indie fare. 

Sundance is taking full advantage of the Internet to promote the festival and indie works. In 2008 Internap provided video streaming and Sun- dance promoted one free short each day of the festival. It further helped short films through partnerships with Apple’s iTunes, Xbox’s Live, and Netflix’s Watch Now. It also has a deal with the Sun- dance Channel that will show 45 short films over the next 3 years. 

However, the value of the Internet distribution remains an open question. The recently resolved writers’ strike against the major TV and film producers is a battle over future revenues from viewer purchases and advertising that web distribution promises. 

It follows closely the agreement reached between the directors and studios and sets a new precedent for revenue sharing. In broadest terms, writers are to get a fee of about $1,200 for streamed programs in the deal’s first 2 years and then get 2 percent of a distributor’s gross in year 3. They will also receive increased residual payments for downloaded movies and TV programs. The directors will get 0.65 percent on sales of more than 50,000 copies a movie, up from the current 0.3 percent; terms for TV shows are different. 

The experience of indie filmmaker Ed Burns with Internet distribution is illustrative. Burns broke onto the indie scene at Sundance in 1995 with his first feature, The Brothers Mc- Mullen, and has gone on to make six more films. Last year, he introduced his latest feature film, Purple Violets, at Robert De Niro’s TriBeCa festival. The film cost four million dollars to produce and stars Burns, Selma Blair, Debra Messing, and Patrick Wilson. But, Burns admits, he couldn’t get a legitimate distribution deal. “Not enough money to market the film,” he laments, “not a wide-enough release to even make a dent in the moviegoing public’s con-sciousness.” 

Together with his production partners at Wild Ocean Film, he decided to roll the digital-dice with Internet distribution through iTunes. It marks the first—and surely not the last—major full-length film to be released through a video download service. 

Apple’s iTunes is one of a growing number of Internet movie services like Netflix’s Watch Now, Joost (backed by CBS), Hulu (backed by NBC), AOL’s in2TV, Brightcove (backed by AOL and Hearst), and Movielink. Most important, a group of indie-oriented Internet services have emerged, including IFC, Jaman, EZTakes, and GreenCine. 

While the number of downloads for Purple Violets is not available, Burns joins a small but growing number of makers and distributors (or “aggregators” as they are called) looking to the Internet as a new distribution alternative. As he admitted in an interview with MovieMaker magazine, the “old way of releasing specialized films” doesn’t work. 

The question confronting Burns and others remains the same: does “the new way” of releasing indie films work? In effect, can they recoup the cost of production? At $13 a pop and with the maker getting roughly one-third of purchase price (but often less) or $4 a hit, it would take one million downloads to break even. The question indies (and studios) face is simple: is this workable? 

Over the last quarter-century the entertainment industry has been fundamentally restructured. During the 1980s and 1990s, entertainment corporations became even greater global media conglomerates, undergoing structural changes that made things qualitatively different for media makers, whether mainstream or independent. Behind a foreground of an apparent increase in the creative role of independent artists, the dominant culture industries were revising the ways they did business, doing so to better control the rapidly growing market and maximize the bottom line. Over time, it was a process applied with equal diligence and consequence to all sectors of the entertainment industry, notably movies, music, and publishing. These changes forced many artists to listen more to their lawyers than their muses.

In the 1980s, the leading music labels, following the Hollywood movie-studio model, abandoned their traditional “closed system” to what the sociologist Paul Lopes calls an “open system” of production. Entertainment companies aggressively established or acquired independent production companies or set-up distribution agreements with nominally independent production companies. In movies, Disney acquired Miramax and Orion Classics morphed into Sony Classics; in music, Motown was bought by MCA and Time Warner gobbled up Rhino. 

The “open” system shifts control from production to distribution. In this shift, independent producers take over the production process, but confront greater demands for cost management. This approach helps hedge risk. But as Lopes notes, it also serves a more subversive role, “to incorporate innovation and diversity as an effective strategy in maintaining the viability of the market” (Paul D. Lopes, “Innovation and Diversity in the Popular Music Industry, 1969- 1990,” American Sociological Review, vol. 52, 1992). 

The open system is distinguished by a flexible relationship between corporate headquarters and the indie producer responsible for the development of new content. It allows media corporations to respond quickly to changes in consumer spending (i.e., latest fads and trends) by signing-up innovative artists and producers. It also allows them to quickly dump those who no longer perform at acceptable (i.e., profitable) levels. Such flexibility helps facilitate oligopolistic market conditions, with management insisting on increasingly tighter control over the bottom line. 

Nothing reveals more clearly how this phenomenon has played out than the experience of hip-hop. It was, initially, an insurgent cultural movement, combining radical ethnic and cultural sentiments with unique musicality. However, it was successfully co-opted into mainstream culture. In the process, it gained greater market presence and contributed to the apparent integration of a new minority culture (African American youth) into mainstream society. But as this happened, hip-hop lost it original, critical edge. As a consequence, media conglomerates gained greater control over larger segments of both mainstream and minority taste. 

Independent media play two often contradictory roles in the entertainment business: they serve as conglomerate culture’s innovation incubator, while also functioning as a creative alternative and economic challenge to a formula-driven, corporate culture. Whether movies, music, publishing, or videogames, indies play a similar role. 

Sundance most acutely embodies this contradiction. It is America’s premier institution promoting independent culture, invigorating the creative media while making innovation acceptable, if not chic, for mainstream consumers. And it can bring instant success to a lucky handful of indie makers. This year, a couple of films got good distribution deals, including Andy Fleming’s Hamlet 2 ($10 million from Focus) and Mark Pellington’s Henry Poole is Here ($3.5 million from Overture). 

Sundance does continue to screen some important indie political films. Among this year’s crop of award- winning films that might come to a theater near you are Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, about two women who smuggle illegal immigrants into the U.S., which won the grand jury prize for dramatic feature and Lisa Jackson’s The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, which won the special jury prize for documentary. 

Among the other more political documentaries that were screened were: Marc Evans’s film about Mumia Abu-Jamal, In Prison My Whole Life; Bret Morgen’s Chicago 10, about the 1968 protests at the Democratic convention and the subsequent trial; Rory Kennedy’s Ghosts of Abu Ghraib, about torture and the U.S. occupation of Iraq; Stacy Peral- ta’s Made in America, about South Central Los Angeles’ drug and gang epidemic; Katrina Browne’s Traces of the Trade, about the early Browne family’s role in the Northern slave trade; and Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, Morgan Spur- lock’s (Supersize Me) search for America’s Most Wanted. 

However, behind the glare of the opening-night hoopla and paparazzi photo flashes, a silent ennui envelops many at Sundance. It is that sense of uncertainty common to independent media-making and is associated with the struggle to create something original and to find a means to distribute the work. This insecurity is felt by many in Park City, as it is experienced by others in New York, Los Angeles, and wherever independent artists struggle to make creative works and make a living. It is an insecurity that will likely only intensify as recession tightens its grip on the nation’s pocketbook, requiring indies to come up with innovative business models and marketing schemes to survive, let alone thrive. 


David Rosen is a cultural critic who has written for Z Magazine, Counterpunch, and other publications. He is the author of Off-Hollywood: The Making & Marketing of Independent Films (Grove), commissioned by Sundance Institute and the Independent Feature Project.