The Indie Market’s Big Rebound

What a difference a year makes.

Thanks to healthy box office for specialty films, half a dozen new distributors and a hopping sales market at Toronto, the independent film world is suddenly rebounding like it’s LeBron James. As a result, the Sundance Film Festival, which launches its 27th annual program Jan. 20, may showcase something odd in the movie business: stability.

“Twenty-four months ago, it was like the fall of Saigon,” says Graham Taylor, head of WME’s global sales division. “And every quarter it’s increasingly gotten better.”

The festival has lined up what many consider an especially strong, truly indie-minded program that includes a sampling of films with higher-profile casts. So buyers and sellers alike are feeling not just optimistic but genuinely eager.

Such filmmakers as Miranda July (The Future), Lee Tamahori (The Devil’s Double), Drake Doremus (Like Crazy) and Dee Rees (Pariah) will unveil new work, while such Premiere section movies as My Idiot Brother (Paul Rudd, Elizabeth Banks), The Details (Tobey Maguire, Laura Linney) and Margin Call (Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons) will roll out the bigger names.

Meanwhile, the documentary lineup includes several returning heavyweights: Morgan Spurlock (The Greatest Movie Ever Sold), Alex Gibney (Magic Trip, co-directed with Alison Ellwood) and James Marsh (Project Nim). Even Kevin Smith is back — this time with Red State, his first foray into horror.

“There’s an embarrassment of riches out there,” Phase 4 Films acquisitions executive Larry Greenberg says.

After a troublesome few years characterized by contraction and uncertainty, many industry players sense that the expectations of the buyers, sellers, producers, filmmakers and financiers who populate the independent film world finally are more in touch with reality. Operating under a tighter margin for error, producers are committing to better films on more sensible budgets, and they are allowing time to find the right deal, without expecting the headline-screaming payday of the festival’s nutty years.

“People are now consciously taking an approach to making their films in the right budget range for the possibility that the only way you’re going to get it [released] is by doing it yourself,” says producer Joey Carey, whose Sundial Pictures has Little Birds and Pariah in the competition program. “Which means not relying on this idea that some third-party distributor is going to come into the festival and give you a chunk of change up front and take over for you.”


UTA sales maven Rena Ronson agrees there has been a reality check.

“When you come in and are more reasonable, and your expectations are set properly, there’s less of a concern to explain to people why you’re not getting your $10 million sale,” she says. “But there’s also a lot more creative dealmaking being done.”

In January 2010, Sundance saw a modest return to dealmaking, which carried through September’s Toronto International Film Festival. And with half a dozen new or resurgent distribution entities — ATO Pictures, Wrekin Hill, the Weinstein Co., Relativity Media, Liddell Entertainment and FilmDistrict — this year’s festival should see more opportunities, if smaller purchase prices.

Relativity and FilmDistrict have made it clear they are looking to acquire wide-release movies, but they could jump into the Sundance fray if something with that potential appears.

Last year, for instance, Focus Features made its one targeted choice wisely, shelling out almost $5 million for Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, which went on to gross $21 million domestically and won two Golden Globes, including for best comedy/musical. Last year’s titles City Island (Anchor Bay), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Music Box) and I Am Love (Magnolia) did well, and Roadside Attractions pushed Winter’s Bone, last year’s Grand Jury Prize winner, to a strong $6.2 million showing at the box office.

This year, high-volume regulars IFC, Sony Pictures Classics and Magnolia will be on the prowl, along with Newmarket, the Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquistions Group and Samuel Goldwyn. Fox Searchlight could pick up a film, as could Lionsgate, Roadside, Paladin, Image Entertainment, Phase 4 and Anchor Bay, among others.

“The challenges that have always existed in terms of releasing independent films still exist,” says Arianna Bocco, head of acquisitions at Sundance Selects/IFC Films. “But for films like Winter’s Bone or Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, the audiences are still there.”

While the range of distribution outlets is a boon to filmmakers, some agents at the bigger agencies scoff at the tiny commissions that come from increasingly small sales. But that has opened the door for independent sales agents such as Kevin Iwashina of Parlay Media and Submarine’s Josh Braun to do well in an environment where buyers are increasingly savvy about using digital platforms.

“The greatest trend for independent films these days is video-on-demand,”  Greenberg says. “It’s not always a huge amount of revenue, but it’s enough that it helps you hedge the bet. So if there’s a movie you’re really passionate about but have questions about its commercial reach, this kind of helps.”

So with the right expectations, filmmakers, sellers, buyers — even audiences — could go home from Park City happy.

“We’re looking for the best film of the year,” Oscilloscope exec David Fenkel says without irony. “I don’t know where it’s going to come from, but that’s what’s exciting about Sundance.”