Cannes 2012: Sundance Selects/IFC Films President Jonathan Sehring on 'On the Road' and Festival Survival (Q&A)

Jonathan Sehring P 2012

The seasoned exec discusses his love for Cannes, his excitement over Walter Salles' adaptation of Jack Kerouac's novel and how chewing gum is his secret weapon.

Jonathan Sehring,president of Sundance Selects/IFC Films, has come to the Cannes Film Festival for 31 years, and for him, there’s still no other place quite so special.

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This year has particular significance for the savvy indie distributor: Sundance/IFC has four films playing in various sections, a first. The newly acquired On the Road, from Walter Salles, and Christian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills are both in Competition, while Gimme the Loot is playing in Un Certain Regard and Room 237 in the Directors’ Fortnight.

Sehring’s prolific outfit, owned by AMC Networks, has been on a winning streak at the domestic box office. Werner Herzog’s acclaimed 3D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams grossed $5.4 million last year to become the company’s third-biggest release of all time. That was followed by the success of Buck with $4 million and December release Pina, which grossed $3.5 million.

Sundance Selects was formed in 2009 and is the distributor’s prestige label, while broader titles go out under the IFC Films banner. In an interview with THR on the eve of Cannes, Sehring addressed the state of the indie business and the importance of staying flexible and discussed his tricks for surviving the festival.

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The Hollywood Reporter: How is Cannes different from other festivals?

Jonathan Sehring: It’s the greatest film festival in the world. I love Sundance for completely different reasons, but Cannes has the best selection of films and what world cinema has to offer. It’s convenient and is still glamorous to me after all these years.

THR: IFC has always been an active buyer at Cannes, acquiring U.S. rights to films including The Wind That Shakes the Barley, Che and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. Do you expect to go on a buying spree this year?

Sehring: We always acquire six or seven films at the festival, or at least have in the past three or four years, but we actually have four films that are in different sections of competition, so we are going to go easy. It’s the first time we’ve had that many.

THR: Is that gratifying?

Sehring: As I just said to somebody, I’ve never been so excited as I am this year. That’s saying something, since I’m kind of jaded. I’m over the moon about On the Road. It’s an incredible work.

THR: Has your acquisitions strategy changed?

Sehring: Yes and no. We change our model all the time. We adjust to the market. We’re not buying anywhere near the number of movies we were acquiring two or three years ago, or even a year ago.

THR: How has the landscape shifted?

Sehring: A lot. The VOD platform has changed. It’s much more crowded and competitive. Even Netflix has changed and is buying more television. Where volume made a lot of sense three or five years ago, it doesn’t make as much sense anymore.

THR: You were a pioneer in opening films day-and-date on VOD. Has it worked?

Sehring: It certainly has been successful for us, but our best successes last year were two traditional releases, Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Buck. We don’t treat any film the same. There are a lot of companies that have a standard way of doing things and they don’t change. We look at every single movie and adjust our release strategy to that film. We’ve had a great deal of success by doing that.

THR: Is it fair to say you are swinging back to a pure theatrical  release model?

Sehring: Honestly, it depends on the film. On the Road for us is very much a traditional theatrical release. It’s a big epic, and it deserves to be seen on the big screen. It is a film that will play to a multi-generational audience, and is going to appeal to a lot of different demographics for a lot of different reasons.

THR: What have been your successful day-and-date releases?

Sehring: They include The Killer Inside Me, Human Centipede and Che. This year, we had one movie that Paul Brooks produced that wasn’t even on anybody’s radar, ATM. It has performed tremendously well on VOD.

THR: What is the biggest challenge facing indie distributors right now?

Sehring: It’s the same challenge as always — it’s a tough business. The film business isn’t an easy one. What continually changes and evolves is the way people watch movies and as a distributor you have to be really smart about identifying who the audience is for a specific film and making sure you get that audience to that film, whether it is in the theater or other platforms like VOD.

THR: How do you pace yourself at festivals?

Sehring: I walk by the parties. If I see a line of people waiting to get into a party, forget it. This will be my 31st year and I realize there is no party that’s worth being tired for unless it is one of our parties. Then I’ll hop over the fence or something stupid to get in. How do I keep going and surviving and stay awake? One is chewing gum during screenings and the second is walking by crowded parties. I chew Big Red.

THR: The independent film business isn’t for the faint of heart. You have been doing this a very long time. Do you have a particular mantra when things get tough?

Sehring: You have to have deep pockets and a strong stomach. You can’t get too high about the highs or too low about the lows.