Tribeca and Sundance Festivals Plan Big Growth
LOS ANGELES — Two big film festival operators, Tribeca Enterprises and the Sundance Institute, are about to greatly expand their efforts to use technology to bring specialty movies to a national audience.
For years, the business function of festivals was straightforward: create excitement for independent films, and hope that distributors acquire them for release.
But the rise of Web streaming and video-on-demand services freed festivals from their geographic limitations. Suddenly, the likes of Sundance, Tribeca and South by Southwest were experimenting with simultaneous film premieres at their festivals and on Web sites like YouTube or cable on-demand systems.
Now comes a new development — the end of experimentation and the start of full-fledged digital distribution efforts by festival operators.
Tribeca plans on Monday to announce a significant expansion of its fledgling movie releasing arm, Tribeca Film, which was founded last year as a test in releasing movies both digitally and in theaters. Tribeca Film plans to increase its annual output to 26 pictures, up from 11.
Among this year’s batch — set for distribution in theaters, on on-demand services in 40 million homes and on Web services like iTunes — are films starring indie favorites like Zach Braff and Vincent Gallo.
“We learned very quickly that our brand can resonate beyond New York,” said Jane Rosenthal, Tribeca’s co-founder. “There are hundreds of wonderful films that never have the chance to reach a wider audience, and we want to seize any possible opportunity to change that.”
Sundance, which has tinkered with distribution partnerships for years, is expected to announce a formal year-round strategy for helping indie filmmakers gain access to digital distribution in the coming weeks. People with knowledge of the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid conflicts with the powerful organization, said plans called for Sundance-branded channels on iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, YouTube and others.
Sundance executives declined to comment, saying efforts were incomplete. A spokeswoman emphasized, however, that the Sundance model would substantially differ from the Tribeca Films effort by allowing filmmakers to retain full ownership of their work. Sundance, unlike most other festival operators, is a nonprofit that also runs workshops for budding filmmakers and playwrights.
“There is big opportunity in this marketplace, particularly for a pocket of films that may not always have huge theatrical appeal but can take advantage of video on demand and other digital platforms,” said Rena Ronson, co-head of the Independent Film Group at United Talent Agency.
Tribeca and Sundance are reaching beyond their traditional functions for reasons of economics and technology. Hammered in recent years by the recession and soaring marketing costs, art house distributors like Paramount Vantage and Picturehouse went out of business, leaving a void in the market.
“It was kind of genius for Tribeca to jump in because almost nobody was left to buy anything,” said Julien Nitzberg, the director of “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia,” a documentary about an eccentric Appalachian family that Tribeca Films successfully distributed last year.
At the same time, Web streaming and growth of video-on-demand systems in living rooms lowered the bar for distribution. Suddenly all kinds of indie films — not just the ones that showed strong theatrical promise — could be served up to wide audiences. The problem is that as digital offerings grow, these films, which come with little or no marketing budgets, have increasing difficulty breaking through the clutter.
The likes of Tribeca and Sundance, organizations with built-in curatorial mechanisms and brands that mean something to cinephiles, see opportunity to help serve as guideposts, thus helping this corner of the industry evolve into a more vibrant business. Mr. Nitzberg credits the Tribeca banner with helping his movie attract enough attention on Amazon’s streaming service to bump “The Hurt Locker,” last year’s best picture Oscar winner, from the top slot.
Some festival executives are not on board with the distribution push. “People approach us all the time because we have a great brand, but distribution is a very different business,” said Janet Pierson, the programmer of the film portion of the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Tex., which this year runs March 11 to 19.
Ms. Pierson has experience to back up her assertion. South by Southwest teamed with IFC Films in 2009 to make five movies available simultaneously to festival audiences in Austin and to pay-per-view television customers across the United States. She has since abandoned such efforts. “It gets very complicated very quickly,” she said. “We want to focus on being a great live event.”
But Ms. Pierson is in the minority. Other festival operators, like Film Independent, the force behind the Los Angeles Film Festival, are working to follow the path charted by Tribeca and Sundance. A group of African-American-oriented festivals — the BronzeLens Film Festival in Atlanta, the ReelBlack Film Series in Philadelphia — recently announced an alliance to back the release of their movies in commercial theaters.
Tribeca’s distribution effort is unique in part because it has a major corporation, American Express, as a promotional sponsor. It has also made arrangements for its films to be shown on LodgeNet, a video-on-demand service that reaches about 1.8 million hotel rooms.
Ms. Ronson of United Talent said Tribeca was being taken seriously as a distributor in part because of the executives it has hired. Within the last year, Nick Savva, formerly of Revolver Entertainment, has joined Tribeca as director of acquisitions; Randy Manis, a co-founder of ThinkFilm, a production and distribution company known for releases like “Half Nelson,” is a consultant.
Tribeca, which will hold its festival from April 20 to May 1 in Manhattan, is expanding its distribution business as the art house market shows signs of a rebound. Acquisitions were brisk in January at the Sundance Film Festival and a few Oscar-nominated movies like “Black Swan” have turned into unlikely box office hits. But Ms. Rosenthal is not taking anything for granted.
“With the rapidly evolving landscape,” she said, “we all have to be extremely fast on our feet.”