Life After Sundance

In the frosty U.S. mountain resort of Park City, Utah, the glam and glitterati from around the world are gathering once again for the Sundance Film Festival (January 20-30). Once a small, alternative festival intended to give a leg up to...
January 1, 2000

In the frosty U.S. mountain resort of Park City, Utah, the glam and glitterati from around the world are gathering once again for the Sundance Film Festival (January 20-30). Once a small, alternative festival intended to give a leg up to independent filmmakers, Sundance has grown into a major event on the international film industry’s radar over the past 16 years .

The exposure is significant for any filmmaker, but for feature doc-makers, a Sundance screening could be the biggest break they’ll get. However, it’s only after the smiling, schmoozing and screenings have ended that the real dealmaking takes place. The following is a look at some of the docs screened at the 1999 Sundance Festival and how they fared in its wake.

Sony Classics taps 1999 Grand Jury Prize

In 1999, Sundance’s coveted Grand Jury Prize went to American Movie, the tale of a mid-western rocker dude’s attempt to make an independent film. Produced by Sarah Price and Jim McKay, and directed by Chris Smith (American Job), the feature doc did not have a distributor before the festival, but by the third screening the filmmakers had signed a handsome distribution deal with Sony Pictures Classics for a reported US$1 million.

Price remembers it was a frenzied time. ‘It was a pretty tense first screening. We didn’t feel like an audience was watching it. We felt that it was kind of up for auction, or something.’

Immediately following the festival, the producers spent seven months transferring the film from 16mm to 35mm film. ‘Everything has been a new experience,’ Price says. ‘Blowing the 16mm up to 35mm, and all of the considerations and the work that is put into that, re-mixing on a huge soundstage in Los Angeles, to going onto Dolby SR, I never could anticipate the work that had to be put into it.’

American Movie, which was recently shortlisted for Oscar contention, premiered theatrically on a platform release in the filmmakers’ hometown of Milwaukee on October 31, 1999, and in New York at the Film Forum on November 2. It opened in L.A. on November 12 and a further roll-out was planned for selected North American cities. According to Reuters, by mid-December the film had garnered total box office receipts of $374,636 in the U.S.

Price and Smith took off in November for a whirlwind promotional tour of 21 cities over six weeks. Price says they are thrilled with the efforts Sony Pictures Classics put into the film’s release in terms of promotion and marketing, though she admits she is looking forward to taking time to relax and re-group.

‘After this publicity stuff, Chris and I are going to take a break,’ Price says. ‘We are both pretty worn out. It has been going on for about four-and-a-half years. We shot for two years, edited for two years, and since last January we’ve been working on it full time. But I must say that it has been totally worth it.’

Speaking in Strings follows the music

Producer Lilibet Foster’s film Speaking in Strings (US$350,000), about gifted and rebellious violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, had the opportunity to solidify a TV distribution deal well before it was accepted into Sundance, but Foster strategically decided not to sign any deals before the festival.

‘I was looking for finishing funds, but I didn’t necessarily want to give it all away at that time,’ says Foster. As a result of her patience, Foster was able to secure both a theatrical release with Seventh Art in Los Angeles, and a television deal with HBO. ‘Sundance in some ways did help push the film over the edge in terms of a larger acquisition. It definitely pushed it over the edge in terms of theatrical. We didn’t sign at Sundance, but the seeds were planted there and the deal was firmed up after.’

Speaking in Strings was released in fall 1999 throughout the U.S. on about 50 screens. Foster says the key to the film’s success has been extensive grassroots promotion, something she is quite familiar with since she independently promoted her last film, Soul in the Hole. ‘We did enormous amounts of mailings to arts societies, and philharmonics, and women’s organizations, and anything where you think people would be interested in the arts aspect, or the music, or a film about women.’

The film’s release also followed Solerno-Sonnenberg’s city by city tour, so the orchestras could help disseminate information about the concert and the film. Foster took advantage of cross-promoting with Angel Records, which had signed on to distribute Speaking in String’s soundtrack.

‘The film’s Seattle release was really successful because it was able to coincide with the Seattle Film Festival, a performance by Nadja and the release of the soundtrack, which added enormous fuel to the overall promotion engine,’ says Foster.

Speaking in Strings airs early this year on HBO and Foster confirms that there have already been several international sales, including deals in Latin America and Italy. The film is one of 12 docs vying for an Academy Award nomination.

Foster is now in the midst of working on a couple of fiction projects including a TV series as well as another feature documentary, what she describes as ‘somewhat of a mock-umentary exploring the creation of a virtual world on the internet.’

On the Ropes loses steam with Winstar

Although an award at Sundance definitely adds caché to a film, it by no means ensures success. The film On The Ropes (US$300,000), about the lives of amateur boxers, received a Special Jury Award at Sundance last year but subsequently hasn’t reached its full potential – at least in the filmmakers’ opinion. Coproducers/co-directors Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein say they went into the festival with high expectations, and as such negotiated a very flexible deal with New York-based distributor Winstar for theatrical distribution rights prior to the festival.

‘We put in an escape clause with five companies on the list,’ says Morgen. ‘The deal was that if one of the five companies put a bid on the film over X amount of dollars, then we could sell out to them. We had to go through all of the motions of stressing out with all of the acquisitions people coming to our screenings, yet at the same time we knew that if nothing happened we were still coming out okay.’

Winstar did end up retaining distribution, as well as coproduction status on the film, and the theatrical release for On the Ropes rolled out in New York on August 18, 1999, at the Film Forum. Box office receipts were $11,428 for its first week; the total earnings as of December 1, 1999, were $40,920. The film has played in 30 markets.

Morgen and Burstein say they are rather dissatisfied with Winstar’s efforts, and feel the film’s critical acclaim and Sundance award should have given the distributor enough confidence to put more funding into its theatrical release. ‘If you have the New York Times, the L.A. Times, and all of the critics and audiences who are going to see the film raving about it, and it’s still not performing, you’ve really got to ask yourselves what the missing link is. In my mind it’s marketing,’ says Morgen.

In defending their handling of the film, Wendy Lidell, VP at Winstar Cinema, compared it to The Source, a doc about the Beat poets by Chuck Workman, which also premiered at Sundance last year and was released by Winstar one week after On the Ropes. It earned $33,861 at the box office in its opening week, and played in 55 markets, garnering a total of $257,356. (Both On the Ropes and The Source are contenders for Oscar nominations.)

Lidell points out that publicity spending on The Source was comparable to On The Ropes, at $11,692, and $10,836 respectively, but that marketing and reviews are never a guarantee for getting people into the theater. ‘The theatrical marketplace is brutal when it comes to documentaries, and viewership is largely content-driven. As a coproducer of the film, Winstar is as proud of On the Ropes’ good reviews as the filmmakers. However, as business people and experienced theatrical distributors, we made prudent business decisions with respect to how much money to spend on promoting the film’s theatrical release.’

Television rights for On the Ropes were sold to TLC in the U.S. prior to the festival as part of the film’s financing, and it will air in April of this year. Morgen and Burstein recently finished a series pilot for Court TV, and are in development on about six other projects, including a behind-the-scenes special of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. On the Ropes is also being developed as a feature film by Warner Bros., with City of Angels director Brad Silberling attached to direct.

Sing Faster skips a beat

Sing Faster: The Stagehand’s Ring Cycle, a documentary chronicling the frenzy backstage at the opera performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, won the 1999 Filmmaker’s Trophy at Sundance, a prize awarded by the filmmaker’s peers. Jon Else wrote, directed and produced the film, which was his third at Sundance. His previous works at the festival included The Day After Trinity in 1980 and Yosemite in 1988.

Having made the 56-minute Sing Faster (US$375,000) for PBS, Else went into the festival fairly relaxed, knowing he was not seeking a theatrical distributor and having a TV sale already completed. But Else is puzzled about one thing. Sing Faster won the Filmmaker’s Trophy and critical acclaim at Sundance, yet it was not featured very prominently for it’s PBS airing last fall, in his opinion.

‘It’s a very sad story. Public Television assigned it to the dustbin,’ Else contends. ‘They consigned it to this strange and frankly rather ineffective series called The Independent Lens. It got broadcast at 11 o’clock at night in a few cities, and it was a disappointment. To this day, after it won at Sundance, I don’t understand why PBS refused to give it a slot in their national schedule.’

Alon Orstein, director of program management at PBS, maintains that The Independent Lens series was an effective destination for the film. ‘We think the world of Jon Else, and were honored to have Sing Faster as part of Independent Lens. The series has been a pretty big success for us in it’s inaugural year. We received over 70% carriage by local stations, which is pretty good, and have had really great responses from the viewers through the website and through the mail.’

Although Else admits he’s a little gun-shy about distribution with PBS, he is now busy working on a new project for the U.S. pubcaster – a one-hour documentary about a group of rambunctious traders who deal in currencies, stock indexes and cattle futures in the trading pits of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

Else, who is somewhat of a festival veteran, admits the festival has changed a lot over the years. ‘It has become a little more hyper-amped. It’s more of a market and less of a block party. But I’d say it is still the most energizing block party around.’


For the 16th annual Sundance Film Festival, indie film gurus at the Sundance Institute have joined forces with festival programmers to create a new forum for documentary films – House of Docs. The five-day event, which takes place during the first half of the fest (January 21-25), offers non-fiction filmmakers a dedicated gathering place at which to converge and discuss current issues, hook up with potential funding partners, network with distributors and broadcasters, participate in panel discourses and engage in intimate roundtable discussions.

Nicole Guillemet, vice president of the Sundance Institute and co-director of the festival, says the tremendous quality and popularity of feature docs in the past few years convinced her of the need to focus on the reality realm. She reasoned that both the institute and the festival could do much more to encourage non-fiction producers and broaden public perception of documentary film. House of Docs is the result.

‘Using the resources we have, the platform we have and the connections we have, we can certainly help documentary filmmakers with their marketing, distribution and exhibition,’ Guillemet says. ‘We will be able to be in touch with all of the documentary filmmakers attending the festival, either officially or unofficially, and help them with distribution, PR, or finding international exposure during the festival.’

Guillemet also wants to see more crossover between doc-makers and fiction filmmakers. ‘I want to be pro-active and ask the feature filmmakers at the festival, `Are you thinking of doing a documentary? Please tell us and we’ll put you in touch with someone.’ It is a big step, both ways. We need to encourage more crossing over.’

House of Docs is just the beginning of what Guillemet hopes will grow into a year-long program. ‘I want to go find the audience,’ Guillemet says, ‘to go to the school system, to different communities, to bring them to the theater. Then I believe the distributors will see that there is an audience. In order to do that there is a whole circle of people. You need the press, you need the audience, and obviously because it is still what drives this beautiful creative train, you need the box office receipts, so we have to try to beat the system. You can’t force people into the theater, but if you give them a reason, I think they will come.’


Nearly 350 documentaries were submitted for consideration at this year’s festival, up from just over 200 last year. Only 16 films are selected for competition.


Festival on the air

Launched in 1996 and running as a 24-hour, commercial-free cable network throughout the week, The Sundance Channel is a co-venture between Robert Redford, ShowTime Networks Inc., and Universal Television. It operates independently of the non-profit institute and the film festival, but shares the Sundance mission of supporting independent filmmakers and providing them with wider opportunities to present their work to audiences. ‘Sundance is known for discovering films, filmmakers and film trends. That notion of discovery is something we are trying to do at the channel as well,’ says Liz Manne, executive vice president of programming and marketing at the Sundance Channel.

Although the channel does program films that have been part of festival screenings, it has no favored deal with the festival, so the channel competes with every other broadcaster for television rights. That considered, films that have been at the festival do hold a special place in the hearts of the channel’s programmers, thus the entire month of January is dedicated to works that have been at previous Sundance Festivals.

Documentaries have a weekly destination slot called Matter of Fact, running Monday nights at 9 p.m. Films airing as part of the strand this month include Sundance alumni; Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary (Laura Angelica Simon), John Henrik Clarke: A Great and Mighty Walk (St. Clair Bourne), Paulina (Vicky Funari), Six O’Clock News (Ross McElwee), and Beautopia (Katharina Otto).

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