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Exciting Times in Park City

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I just returned from Park City where I had the pleasure to judge the Slamdance Documentary Competition. I saw some compelling and inspiring work. Being a judge forced me to actually see films at a film festival for the first time in two years since embarking on the TOTBO project (usually I am lucky to see one film). In addition, I got to catch nearly all of Gandu Asshole -- a stunning visual and narrative feast by first time Indian filmmaker Q that is headed to the Berlinale. Last but not least, I got the opportunity to see the finished version of the moving and brilliantly structured Kinyarwanda, a film I mentored in the IFP Filmmaker Labs.

It was a very exciting time at Park City. First off, more films have sold at this year's Sundance Film Festival than in recent memory and that is good news for independent film as Ted Hope points out in his blog that it "should give investors more confidence that you no longer have to rely just on foreign; the US acquisition climate seems quite robust again."

However, I am concerned that filmmakers see these sales and think they can revert back to depending on the festival acquisition system to handle the distribution and marketing of any and all of their films. I hope all will analyze the elements that were most attractive to the buyers (name cast, compelling documentary subjects, past success with a similar film) before assuming that the old days are back.

I got the sense there is a growing awareness that while sales happen for some films, filmmakers understand that the system cannot and does not handle all films. In fact, these sales make up a small percentage of films on the festival circuit each year, much less than the films produced every year. More and more filmmakers are understanding the need to engage audiences on their own -- or with partners -- and craft unique distribution and marketing strategies for their films.

Even during the fat days of the American independent acquisition market, many worthy films did not receive distribution. With the number of films being made worldwide exploding, and with the still constrained channels of traditional distribution, the need for new ways for filmmakers to connect with audiences is as needed as ever.

This need received a wonderful boost from the just announced Sundance Digital Initiative. This initiative is one in which the Sundance Institute will help create pathways for filmmakers who did not garner a traditional deal to release their films. The initiative began with training of institute alumni in how to use Kickstarter and Facebook and will grow into extended relationships with those companies and many more in the digital space as well as an online hub of information and resources for filmmakers to navigate this space (although these services are initially just for Sundance filmmakers and alumni).

Then there is Kevin Smith. He caused a bit of commotion by auctioning off his film Red State to himself and insulting the assembled buyers in the process. If you weren't there, here is his half hour, post film talk.

But the controversy over the theatricality of the moment distracted from the heart of what Smith was really talking about -- that "the movie doesn't have to end when you make the movie" and "Indie film grew up -- we don't let them sell our movie, we sell our movie ourselves". Given the number of sales at the festival, it seems that some filmmakers are still willing to sell their movie. Depending on the goals of the filmmaking team, the old path may make sense. However I appreciate Smith for using his platform to make a loud statement to our community.

While Smith feels that taking his film on the road by himself is the most groundbreaking aspect of his act, I actually feel that the work he has been doing for the past number of years has been what is truly revolutionary about his project. He has created a unique relationship with a large and devoted audience. In essence he has created himself into an artist entrepreneur in the best sense of the term. He understands how to use new media tools to engage and connect with his audience -- both through traditional social media, but also through his Smodcast network.

He understands the concept of the added value of creating an event -- how an event can be more powerful than a traditional release.

He understands what kinds of merchandise his followers want to purchase and he creates it for sale.

He understands the nature and power of digital content in further engaging his fan base -- giving away his Smodcasts for free as a hobby -- gaining an audience -- and then being able to earn money from the advertising revenue from these podcasts. He also sells tickets (access to himself) to the live broadcast from his SmodCastle in LA

It will be interesting to watch how he and his team's understanding of the new distribution landscape create a unique campaign for his film.

Finally, the future of storytelling was on hand in the New Frontiers section of Sundance with two impressive transmedia projects. First was Lance Weiler's incredibly ambitious and literally mind blowing Pandemic 1.0 which utilized the following media to introduce the Pandemic story world to Park City and the world: A short film, a koala, a magazine, secret locations, 60 story artifacts, 50 mobile phones, 5,000 bottles of water, 50,000 photos, 3.2 million points of data.

More contained but as intriguing was Blast Theory's A Machine To See With in which audience members could sign up to participate in a live heist film event that took place every day from 2-5pm. Different audience members are given instructions via cell phone in order to create the city wide narrative. As the member of Blast Factory manning the exhibit extolled: "How far you go with instructions sent to you via cell phone -- is up to you -- but remember that you are in a heist film."

Jon Reiss is a filmmaker and author of Think Outside the Box Office. Follow him on twitter @Jon_Reiss.