Robert Redford's recent awards-season campaign has doubled as a walking advertisement for the Sundance Film Festival.
"All Is Lost," in which the veteran thesp is the lone actor onscreen, was directed by J.C. Chandor, who made his debut at Sundance in 2011 with "Margin Call," a Wall Street drama with an all-star cast that went on to become a poster child for successful VOD releases. Chandor later connected with Redford, and convinced him to headline his adventure drama about a man lost at sea.
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"That was one of the things that drew me to it, because of the challenges it provided for me as an actor," says Redford, who liked the lack of special effects, voiceovers and high-tech trappings. "This was more of a pure cinematic experience," he explains.
Redford says this year's Sundance, which celebrates its 30th anniversary in Park City, Utah, from Jan. 16 to 26, represents something of a return to the festival's origins. "(It's) going a little back to our roots, in terms of very different independent films that are even more different than they have been in the last few years," he notes.
But will buyers open their wallets and spend generously?
"There's never been enough money," Redford says.
Still, buyers' billfolds are thicker than a few years ago, when Wall Street hit rock bottom, investors were wary of Hollywood and many laid-off journalists couldn't even afford a plane ticket to Utah to cover the festival. Last year's Sundance showed ample signs of a return to the rosy '90s, with high-priced pickups for titles including "The Way Way Back" and "Fruitvale Station." Neither of those films, though, came anywhere near the box office heights of "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Precious," both of which were picked up at previous Sundance fests.
"It's going to be very different than last year," says Scott Shooman, head of acquisitions for CBS Films. "With Sundance, you always expect one or two wide releases, a bunch of platforms and a few docs. I think this is the strongest genre-influenced lineup, at least on paper, that I've seen Sundance have in a long time."
Yet there is a fair amount of concern in the indie film community about prospects for the types of smaller, risky films that James Schamus championed at Focus Features before he was ousted.
With Focus' more commercially minded new CEO Peter Schlessel arriving on the ski slopes, competition could be fierce for the fest's few potential wide releases. A growing number of distribs offering digital distribution likely will continue to lift the total number of deals made.
In general, buyers are encouraged by the mix of genre-infused films that characterizes this year's slate, even with quirky ensemblers having replaced star-driven vehicles in recent years.
The strategy for many buyers may well be that a handful of promising small movies is worth more than a high-stakes single acquisition. If that's the case, there are more than enough titles to go around, from "Song One," the intimate drama starring Anne Hathaway and directed by first-time helmer Kate Barker-Froyland, to Roger Ebert documentary "Life Itself" to Zach Braff's Kickstarter-funded film "Wish I Was Here."
Shooman describes this year's fest as driven by earnest American indies, the kind of movies that often seem tailor-made for video-on-demand, which has made profitability more attainable in some cases by distributing small films directly into homes.
More and more filmmakers are starting to respect the VOD model as they value quick delivery in the generation of social media.
Still, VOD is far from a reliable revenue generator. In 2013, there were no on-demand hits on the level of "Margin Call" two years earlier. Moreover, there is no transparency when it comes to getting hard VOD numbers, which begs the question of just how well these releases are doing.
"There are quality distributors out there," Shooman says. "It's about finding the right product for the right home."
Jason Constantine, Lionsgate's president of acquisitions and co-productions, cites "Margin Call" and Richard Gere drama "Arbitrage," both of which premiered at Sundance, as game changers for VOD. Yet VOD specialist Radius-TWC opted to release "20 Feet From Stardom" exclusively in theaters before going to video-on-demand in order to maximize the film's commercial potential.
Even with distribution advances, the strategy for discovering films hasn't changed. "You keep perspective by being open at every screening you go to," Constantine notes, adding that the criteria for a purchase are still old school. "We're looking for films that people will go out of their way to see in a movie theater," he says.
Producer Myles Nestel argues that even with the slumping economy, the spotlight for Sundance has continued to shine brightly.
"You have every U.S. distributor there, you have foreign buyers there, you just have that buzz," he explains. "Sundance is kind of the perfect festival in terms of a U.S. distributor's perspective. If they buy something in January, they can slot it in July as counterprogramming."
This year's festival will include a number of repeat guests, including mumblecore auteur Lynn Shelton ("Laggies") and Ira Sachs, who will be making his sixth Sundance appearance.
Sachs last made a splash in 2012 with his gay love story "Keep the Lights On," which starred two unknown actors who were comfortable enough to do the steamy love scenes. This year, he returns with the more commercially friendly "Love Is Strange," which tackles the hot-button topic of gay marriage with a cast that includes John Lithgow and Alfred Molina (tying the knot) and Marisa Tomei (as a wedding guest).
"There is support for serious films both on the high and low end," Sachs says of Sundance, adding that the festival helps filmmakers at all stages of their careers. "And the truth is," he adds, "we need that support."
Robert Redford Says Sundance Lineup Is a Return to Indie Roots
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