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Is the Sundance Film Festival becoming obsolete?



PARK CITY, Utah–Is Sundance becoming obsolete? It’s a question swirling around the Sundance Film Festival at this tony ski resort this year as the fate of independent films seems to grow dimmer and the money to finance these ventures is as difficult to cobble together as political compromises on Capitol Hill.

But one man is not so pessimistic. His name is Peter Saraf, the co-founder with Marc Turtletaub of the New York-based production company Big Beach, which in 2006 produced the critical and box office sensation “Little Miss Sunshine.” “The landscape of movies selling has changed a lot over the last few years,” Saraf said, noting that “Little Miss Sunshine” came to the Sundance Film Festival and sold for $10.5 million. “There’s a lot less revenue to be made,” he pointed out. “Home video rentals are down; pay TV deals are either gone or diminished; the foreign market for American independent films is diminished by a lot of great local filmmaking. There are a lot of incredible filmmakers around the world now by countries that didn’t used to have them. So, they’re watching fewer American films. American blockbusters are doing better than ever, but smaller films are struggling….It’s harder to make a buck off these things and there are fewer distributors….We were living in a hyper-charged period for awhile that was driven by DVD sales. The fact of the matter it was paying a lot of our rents for the last decade–that’s what made those numbers possible. That’s just not there anymore.”

Saraf is at the Sundance this year with two films: “Jack Goes Boating” directed and starring Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, and “Lucky,” director Jeffrey Blitz’ documentary that takes an entertaining and candid look at people who won big at the lottery and whether their dreams came true?

What’s encouraging to Saraf is that the festival is less focused on the deals that Sundance has become famous for in the media, and now has turned more of the spotlight on the films themselves.

“Last year and this year…there’s been a little more of a focus on the films and less of a ‘Who’s going to buy? What are they going to spend?’ What if we just step back and appreciate it for that? At the same time, there’s going to be the emergence of new companies. It’s going to be more like the original Miramax and the original Octobers in the early ’90s. Some of those companies are already starting to emerge.”

Saraf said there is no question people are going to consume more and more motion picture stories on the Internet. “People’s viewing habits have already radically changed. You think of all these things. It wasn’t that long ago when telvision was free, you didn’t pay for the Internet because it didn’t exist. You didn’t have a cell phone…you didn’t have all these things that are now necessities of life…but at the end of the day, what matters more than anything…is a good story.”

He believes the Sundance Institute is not out of step to any of this. The festival, for example, has created a new category for micro-budgeted films and is supporting filmmakers doing online films.

“You can come here in January and show your film to a few hundred people and get a lot of press and then have to recreate all that in a theatrical release elsewhere to support your ancillary, or you can come here and generate all this press and all this attention and have all the world looking and saying, ‘Wow, I wish I could see that movie–oh, and guess what? I can get it in my Netflix cube right now.'”

Saraf said Big Beach currently is working to turn “Little Miss Sunshine” into a Broadway musical.

And it all began at Sundance.

About Robert W. Welkos

Executive Editor: Robert W. Welkos is an award-winning journalist who covered the entertainment industry for 15 years as a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times. During this span, he wrote extensively about the movie industry from turmoil in the executive suites, the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, and box office hits and bombs to visits to movie sets as well as profiles of top stars and A-list directors, cutting edge features on the newest indie films and visits to famous film festivals like Sundance and Cannes. Prior to entertainment, Welkos worked as a reporter and assistant city editor in The Times’ Metro section where he undertook major investigations for the paper as well as covering breaking news and writing in-depth features. Before joining The Times, he worked for the Associated Press in Reno, Nevada, and City News Service in Los Angeles.

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One Comment

  • January 27, 2010 | Permalink |

    He probably said Netflix queue, not cube.

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