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Sundance: Indie Film Business Starts to Hum With Good Films, More Distributors

From "Idiot Brother" to "Like Crazy," big deals are back, while savvy filmmakers and new distribution methods make the business feel healthier than it has in years

Is it possible that the long national nightmare of independent film is over?

At Sundance, the independent film business appears to be humming this year in a way that it hasn’t in a long time.

The films are more focused and entertaining. The traditional buyers are here in force, joined by a host of newfangled players who are throwing television, video-on-demand and digital distribution into the mix.

And on Sunday, three days into the festival, a half-dozen movie deals were either closed or on the cusp of closing, everything from "Like Crazy" for $4 million, to "My Idiot Brother" for $6 million  -- with plenty more sales on the way. (Oh snap, update: "Homework" sold to Searchlight and  "Devil's Double" is nearly sold.)

Read also: Sundance Deals: 'Idiot Brother' to Weinstein for $6M, 'Like Crazy' to Paramount for $4M

“There’s less of the films where you go, ‘Why is that here?’” Sony Picture Classics co-president Tom Bernard told TheWrap. “There’s a pretty good crop of pictures. And now there are so many different companies that can expose your movies, most of them will get sold one way or another. They may not get money they want but they will find a window to be seen.”

That would mean other places besides just theatrical: television, pay per view, video on demand, digital distribution, streaming -- and any combination thereof.

Said Rich Klubeck, who heads the independent film division at UTA, and who closed a high-ticket deal in "Like Crazy," a romantic story starring Anton Yelchin and Felicity Jones: "We know that strong films with something new to say are playing extremely well to audiences, and studios pay attention to that. We’re seeing that here."

On the digital side, companies like Snagfilms, Brainstorm and Filmbuff are providing new outlets and revenue streams for independent films that are finally starting to hit some scale.

“This is real new stuff, even for bigger movies,” said Jonathan Dana, a veteran indie producer, who is here selling the documentary “We Were Here,” about the rise of a gay social support movement in response to AIDS. “This will be how those movies get presented in new formats. We can release ‘We Were Here’ conventionally, but we have to compare the cost of the old model to these new ones.”

He added: “It’s where critical mass meets the long tail. And we have to redefine critical mass by targetting these niche audiences.”

Certainly “We Were Here” has a built-in niche audience. So does “Pariah,” a coming-of-age story about a young, black lesbian.

Bernard noted that the writer-director Dee Rees was very savvy about for whom the film was intended.

“This new group of filmmakers are different,” observed Bernard. “They have a much broader view of landscape than people from the last 10 years. They’re involved in thinking about where the movies’s going to go, thinking about audience, options, steering it and where it ends up in distribution.”

Rees, he said, “seemed knowledgeable about the audience for her film and wanted it to be seen in a certain segment.”

And other new tools are available too: For the bargain basement price of $350 a year, non-profit The Film Collaborative, founded by Jeffrey Winter, provides marketing and distribution services to indie filmmakers.

That tiny fee provides unlimited consultation, and the organization can also do a distribution-for-hire for a fraction of what other for-profit companies charge.

Indie-world veteran and producer Joe Pichirallo also noted the presence of major studios. Disney’s Rich Ross was at a lot of screenings, while Paramount was clearly in the game.

“What’s striking to me is there are more mainstream, studio people here," Pichirallo said. "And this sale to Paramount (of ‘Like Crazy’) suggests that people are seeing the kinds of films that have potential in the marketplace in the way they haven’t in recent years.”

By Sunday, plenty of deals were getting closed. In addition to “Like Crazy,” a touching love story about two young lovers fighting against U.S. immigration there was “Margin Call,” a drama about financial collapse on Wall Street starring Jeremy Irons and Kevin Spacey;  and Tony Krantz's “Big Bang.”

By all accounts, other deals are close to being completed, and most distributors expect a whole lot more to come -- perhaps documentaries like “Senna,” about the race car driver Ayrton Senna. Meanwhile Kevin Smith decided to distribute his highly-anticipated “Red State" on his own, powered by his 2 million strong Twitter followers!

That’s a big change from years past, when dozens of films would be left by the side of the Sundance gulch -- adored in the moment, and forgotten a few weeks later.
Perhaps indie film has finally turned that long-awaited corner.