It’s Hard to Be an Indie at Sundance This Year

One of the bastions of independent cinema may suffer after a more optimistic 2017.
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By  · Published on January 19th, 2018

One of the bastions of independent cinema may suffer after a more optimistic 2017.

Entertainment Media Partners and Cultural Weekly have released their annual Sundance report and infographic, and it doesn’t tell a particularly promising story for the state of independent cinema. Last year brought about massive changes to the film industry on a grand scale, one that will undoubtedly affect the climate of the Sundance Film Festival, which began this week and will run through the end of January.

According to the report, the number of indie films competing for the sliver of market share left after big studios have staked their claim has gone up significantly. Last year, 566 out of 724 films released were indies. But they made up 5% of market share — about $500 million — that mostly went to only a small selection of films. Indies are then far less likely to get any big screen exposure. Only three Sundance 2017 films had a wide release (more than 600 screens), and a mere nine broke the $1 million dollar mark in gross returns.

We can see it reflected in the general turnout at Sundance 2018, wherein there were actually fewer dramatic and documentary submissions compared to 2017. An overall higher number of total submissions have to do with an influx of virtual reality content instead. But according to the infographic, the general estimation of financial investment in both dramas and documentaries will decline significantly after a mild boost last year.

The report also takes into account the ever-growing presence of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon: 56 titles from Sundance’s 2017 program were released through distribution companies, which accounts for either theatrical or VOD, but many of them eventually ended up online officially anyway, either on YouTube or on filmmakers’ own websites. Movies aren’t really decreasing in availability, which could also account for the fact that illegal downloading of the content wasn’t as much of an issue either last year. However, the report rightly points out that because plenty of indies aren’t getting any exposure in cinemas as it is, nobody really knows they’re there and can’t make any decision on whether to pirate them or not. These movies are basically not hyped up at all, and that’s a big problem.

Speaking as someone who doesn’t get to go to festivals like Sundance, and who struggles with seeing many indie films in cinemas just because of where I live, the lack of exposure for these movies is incredibly frustrating. Netflix definitely isn’t a foolproof solution either, given that the website tends to really push certain movies more than others, and indies often still get buried. And if I have no idea what I’m looking for, how would I search for them? This is also something the report conveys:

The real question for indies, is not “Will the audience be able to see my movie?” because they will, somewhere. The real question is, “Will the audience even know my film is there, given all the movies being released, all the episodic TV shows, and all the other content being offered by traditional and non-traditional purveyors?”

In terms of distribution players, 2018 will likely see a decrease in buyer activity. There won’t be any Weinstein Co. acquisitions, and Focus Features, Sony Pictures Classics, and Roadside Attractions haven’t been doing too well. The report isn’t particularly enthusiastic about Amazon Studios, even if they could go the whole hog and lap up a whole bunch of films. So, whether A24 will monopolize the acquisition game remains to be seen. The business of indie cinema has always been competitive, but now more so than ever.

Sundance Infographic Culturalweekly

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Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)