I just returned from Sun/Slamdance and have to say - I feel pretty good about the state of things in indie land. Last year, things seemed pretty grim and I thought that perhaps only Peter Broderick and Jon Reiss were figuring things out. This year, the energy felt different. I get accused of being a downer in some of these posts, and about the industry generally, but this post is nothing but happy, so put on your smiles!
Even the Sundance organization, late to every digital party thus far, has come up with a pretty good system for helping out indies. (Late? Yes, I had digital projection two years before them in Atlanta, they've botched their previous online partnerships, etc. etc.) Just today, they announced a new partnership with Facebook and Kickstarter, hired away the very smart Chris Horton from CRM and hinted at rumors of more distribution initiatives down the line. From what you can parse between the lines and from the bit (very little) I was able to pick up from behind the scenes, Sundance is doing this smartly. They aren't becoming a distributor, but instead are building on their strengths to help filmmakers. It's curatorial - starting with their alumni, but they hint it might expand later. It's educational - building on the labs to help train artists in how to best use Facebook Pages, for example. It's about bringing their brand and attention to their artists. No, none of this is new, but it shows a maturation of the space, and if Sundance does this right it will be good for everyone. The key here, by the way, is whether or not they keep fees low for artists, which they should.
Kickstarter is a big name, but their little competitor IndieGoGo launched a cool new partnership as well, by marrying their Distribber platform to Brainstorm Media, they can now offer any indie filmmaker the ability to get their film on every VOD platform for a fee. Yes, the fee is reportedly $10,000 and that seems high at first, but if you have an indie film that will make good money it might be a much better deal than the typical percentage splits of other middle-men. Sure, some little indie is going to do this and not make back the 10K, but I bet at least one will hit gold and fulfill their (Brainstorm/Indiegogo) stated wishes to be made to look stupid!
It was also clear that the business was back at Sundance - in every way. Audiences were up, press and industry screenings were too long for many to get into their choice films, sponsors were all over Main Street (alongside the bimbos in high heels in the snow, per usual) and the buyers have been buying films like crazy. It's too early to tell what the final deal count will be (I can't believe I am typing such lame words....), but everyone seems to agree that things are better. More importantly, however, in conversations with many of these "dead" distributors, as many in the DIY world have been proclaiming them, it is clear that yes, they "get" some things about the new world and many (not all) are hiring people to help build better audience engagement tools and test a few models. Yes, just like the music industry, we're still in for massive disruption, but not everyone is as dumb as they look (or recently looked).
I also heard from many new companies launching- some with "old" distribution models, many with new, and it seemed every Q&A had someone launching into a pitch for their new Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, Quora, freakin-robotified new tie-in company. Many of these will no doubt fail, but I finally saw a bit of the energy of SXSW on the streets of Park City, and that was nice.
Even the little indies were doing well. Slamdance held another Filmmaker Summit, and despite there still being a couple people in the audience just learning about using the crowd (for funding, distribution, etc), it was also clear that 95% of the audience was smarter than the panelists this time around (okay, they're always smarter than me). Lance Weiler could talk about transmedia without an hour-long definition (that's his project in the photo above), and no one seemed to blink when Greg Pak showed off his comic book and we learned that the Ford Foundation was behind his transmedia vision (Vision Machine, that is). Hell, even Levi's is in the transmedia game with Miss Representation by Jennifer Siebel Newsom.
But probably my favorite thing was that the mood among the DIY indies was so upbeat. People were clearly ready to make their own new system, they have the tools and case studies to help them and were, frankly, completely unafraid of the new world order. I've always hung around this crowd a bit, so I get that people have been happily doing DIY for a long time, but this time it was clear that DIY had gone mainstream. People are slowly starting to "get it" a bit more and every single day I learned something new from a filmmaker doing something different. That's a good thing.
Another good thing this year was that Sundance had "31 documentaries, narrative features, and short films featuring diverse stories that include African and African American talent and/or directors in this year's line-up" according to the Blackhouse Foundation. I think the number of directors was 18, but I'm not sure; anyway, that's great for Sundance. I'd like to know the percentages for other diversity statistics, but it's great to see the nation's premiere film fest looking more like the rest of the country (note: they have had other good years for this too). While it remains difficult to convince Hollywood (or even Indiewood) to make certain stories, and there remains quite a power imbalance, the sentiment of the panel that I was on at the Blackhouse was clear - it's never been a better time to be a diverse filmmaker, make a diverse film and/or find its audience than now.
I was also pretty upbeat about the festival because I discovered a new writing talent in Alicia Van Couvering in Filmmaker Magazine. New to me, that is - she's the producer of one of the most popular movies of the indie world this year, Tiny Furniture, but hey, I don't get out much. Her article on a certain tendency of the American indie film (turn of phrase hat tip: Robert Ray and Truffaut) as of late is quite simply some of the best writing on indie film out there right now. This paragraph might be the single best paragraph on American Indie Film that I have ever read, in an article that comes darn close as well:
Let’s define the circumference of the navel at which we’re gazing (turn of phrase hat tip: James Ponsoldt.) Most Sundance films are directed by members of an extremely small urban artistic class seeking respect within their own tiny community. The reach of these films only occasionally spreads beyond the walls of the New York and Los Angeles neighborhoods where their makers reside. (italics mine) They are a concentrated example of a whole swath of American youth experiencing periods of extended adolescence — choosing careers late, marrying late, buying property late. Like some bizarre capitalist mutation on red diaper babies, these young people are encouraged since birth to find their inner specialness and sing their special song to the world. The fact that the world does not, in fact, want to hear their song, and worse yet, that they have no special song to sing, sends them reeling into a whirlpool of thwarted narcissism. It is, to be sure, the bubbliest of champagne problems.
What makes it even better is that she goes on to redeem this same tendency by showing that masterful filmmakers can make this a legitimate problem to explore. That said, the problem I have italicized above is a real one. It's why we need more diverse voices and it's why I am also glad that Gandu by Q was the only (bit of) film I saw while in Park City. Yes, unfortunately for me, I was in Park City for meetings, and even with a badge I only saw 15 minutes of one film (and 20 minutes past its start time) at Slamdance. I walked into the back, having been tipped off by some folks that it was gold. I am quite positive based on just those 15 minutes that this movie is brilliant. It was 15 minutes of pure amazement - punk, fun, exhuberant, black and white and with an amazing energy. It's a film from Kolkata, about kids in KolKata and it is unlike many other Indian films I've seen (but I am no expert). Here's the synopsis from Slamdance, and the director's bio:
Gandu hates his life. He hates his mother. She is the mistress of a local businessman. As his mother sells sex in the apartment the man has let them live in, Gandu picks the man’s pocket. In his dream, Gandu raps out the hate, anger, dirt and filth of his existence.
One day he finds a friend, a strange Rikshaw-puller, a devotee of Bruce Lee. Together, they dive into a dark fantasy. Smack, rap, porn, horror. And, within that, a glimmer of hope. This delirium meets with harsh reality checks, and the end of the mother-son relationship.
The narrative becomes fragmented and abstract, a head rush of emotion, graphic sex and finally Gandu the rapper getting a breakthrough. We do not know whether it is dream or reality. Surreal and bizarre come together, as the two friends lose their grip and the film takes over.
Born and raised in Kolkata. An arts graduate from Calcutta University. Worked in advertising for twelve years in India, Maldives and Sri Lanka. Directed over fifty, winning various awards on the way. Then, inspired by the independent films of Europe and Japan, retired voluntarily and shifted trade and city. Back in Kolkata, Q started a progressive art house namely OVERDOSE, a production, design and music company. He produces, writes, shoots and directs films. He works hard on his sense of humour to keep him afloat.Here's an interview with him, which is also pretty amazing.
Now that isn't the same niche as many American Indie Films.....or is it? A different take on the same theme of not wanting to grow up, and with a sex scene that's supposedly pretty hot (I missed it), perhaps this can find its audience here too. It plays Berlin next, and I bet it does well there.
So there you have it....my wrap report from Sundance. My guess is this is gonna be a good year for indies.
Photo Credit: Me, of Saskia Wilson-Brown and Gregory Bayne exploring Lance Weiler's Pandemic experience at Sundance.