After every large film festival, critics and industry pause to take stock and ask “What does this year’s [insert festival name here] mean for the state of the independent film industry?” What they really mean is: Can filmmakers still get lots of money from distribution deals? Are the distributors doing well enough to pay filmmakers lots of money? If Sundance deals are robust – and this year was indeed a buying frenzy – it is reflected in the attitudes and unfortunately, inflated expectations of every independent filmmaker on the circuit, even the ones who should know better.
Attending the beloved medium-sized Midwestern True/False Film Festival just over a month after attending the behemoth that is Sundance, one bears witness to the relationship between the film festival timeline and filmmakers’ hopes and expectations for the distribution of their films. At True/False, there were a handful of filmmakers who had made deals with the mini-majors and boutique indies at Sundance. These filmmakers have an air of calm and confidence about them; their film will be released in theatres, their distributors will take care of their festival runs, and they will have lovely posters, great publicists, and marketing teams working on the film’s behalf. For them, the fight is largely over.
Then, there are the filmmakers who have yet to “officially” premiere their films. (True/False has a half-dozen “Secret Screenings,” in which the names of films and any identifying details are not released to the public and are not allowed to be reviewed. Therefore, they can fly under the radar until their official World Premieres at the next big fests – South by Southwest and Tribeca.) These filmmakers carry with them a nervous energy combined with a sense of hope. They have hired sales agents, are finalizing their press kits and are hoping for that aforementioned deal.
South by Southwest, which comes less than a week after True/False, is arguably the 2nd most important U.S. film festival. However, it is not a deal-making fest in the way of Redford’s extravaganza (or is it Weinstein’s these days?). I have not yet heard of one film being bought yet, 5 days into the Festival. In fact, all acquisitions announcements over the past 3 days have regarded Sundance films. The Austin fest is a slower burn, and it takes longer for anything to gel. (Personal experience: A film that I associate produced, Billy the Kid, won the “Grand Jury Prize” for Best Documentary in 2007. The night it won, we got calls from every distributor and their mother, but it took weeks for anything to come through concretely, and a lot of it was all bark, and no bite.)
The relaxed pace of Southby means it is difficult to generalize about the “state of distribution” - did a buying-heavy Sundance mean that the industry is in good health? Do distributors have more money than last year? Is independent film on an upswing again? – until after Tribeca. However, I think this is the wrong framework in which to judge the health of the industry.