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TV now a key component of Sundance Festival

Jan 27, 2003  •  Post A Comment

The Sundance Film Festival is the great American big-screen experience. Yet it is also evolving into an important showcase for the small screen.
Television has become a major player at Sundance-and indeed, in the independent film world. For reasons that go beyond prestige to marketing and brand enhancement, networks such as HBO, Showtime and the Independent Film Channel, as well as public television, have made an annual rite of coming to this ski resort town every January.
Of the roughly 100 full-length films that played at this year’s Sundance (Jan. 17-26), nearly 30 were produced or co-produced by TV networks. That included such audience favorites as “American Splendor” from HBO Films and the documentary “The Weather Underground” from the publicly funded Independent Television Service, which supplies content to PBS.
Other Sundance films, such as MTV’s “Tupac: Resurrection” and IFC Films’ “Pieces of April,” will have theatrical runs before airing on TV.
This year’s festival was also a coming-out party of sorts for the cable channel that shares its name. Sundance Channel concentrated its 2003 marketing budget on the “10 Days” campaign to promote the network’s ramped-up coverage of the festival, including nightly broadcasts from Park City and a live special on awards night.
The decision seems to coincide with a new understanding of the need to both build and leverage the Sundance brand. The nonprofit Sundance Institute, a year-round resource for filmmakers, is a joint owner of the Sundance Channel along with media giants Viacom and Universal.
“In a world of a million and one movie networks, this is the one thing we could honestly say is proprietary,” said Paola Freccero, Sundance Channel senior VP for film programming. “We want Sundance to be synonymous with the best in independent film.”
The other indie-film network, IFC, may not have as catchy a name. Unlike Sundance Channel, however, IFC doesn’t just acquire movies. It produces them and shows them in theaters. And at the Sundance Film Festival.
For the second year running, IFC’s low-budget digital films division InDigEnt was responsible for a big-buzz festival hit. This year it was “Pieces of April,” starring “Dawson’s Creek’s” Katie Holmes. United Atrists agreed to pay $3.5 million for distribution rights to the film last week after a classic Sundance bidding battle.
IFC Films, another division, is best known for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” the biggest-grossing hit in indie history. That film wasn’t picked for Sundance, however. IFC Films did bring two films to Sundance: the crowd-pleasing teen musical “Camp” and the documentary “A Decade Under the Influence,” which IFC plans to release as a “multi-platform” spectacle in August. The movie will appear in select theaters, on the cable channel itself and on its IFC On Demand service.
Documentaries have a unique place at Sundance. While other festivals are dedicated to docs, Sundance treats doc filmmakers as co-equals with feature filmmakers. The institute has a grant-making arm to fund documentary projects. Robert Redford, the festival’s co-founder and most visible spokesman, often speaks of documentaries as an antidote to mass media, a “cultural exchange” that informs people about their world.
“The buzz of documentaries here is very invigorating,” said Sheila Nevins, HBO’s head of documentary production. “There’s no film festival like this with the energy for documentaries.” Festival picks bestow an imprimatur on nonfiction films that makes them more marketable. For example, said Nevins, the Sundance seal of approval transformed a worthy but little-known documentary, “Devil’s Playground,” from the 2002 festival, into an attention-getting DVD.
PBS brought nine films to Sundance, including seven of the 16 competition documentaries. Some were produced or co-presented by ITVS.
“PBS had a tradition of putting independent films on television before it was even called independent film,” said John Wilson, PBS co-chief program executive. “Sundance is a very prominent festival and it carries a lot of prestige. It’s a great way to get the word out about these films.”
Showtime landed five films at Sundance, including Salma Hayek’s directorial debut, “The Maldonado Miracle.”