I want to expand, redirect and challenge some of the discussion on my earlier post about Sundance, The Nines, and the death of independent film.

For starters, many in the P2P world were all too happy to declare victory over, well, logic. (The Nines Director: Forget Sundance, Use P2P Instead). That’s incorrect on a lot of levels.

In the article, I said that leaking a copy online at the right moment would have certainly increased awareness, and might have helped sales of tickets, DVDs and paid downloads. Notice that I really am talking about sales — that antiquated notion where people pay for things. My thesis is that if you make it at least as easy to obtain something legally as illegally, a fair number of potential users are happy to pay for it.

And I said nothing approaching, “Forget Sundance.” I said that Sundance buzz is annoying and meaningless, but that doesn’t mean the festival is irrelevant. Quite the contrary. Film festivals are public events in which thousands of people come together to watch challenging, independent film. The failure of arthouse distribution for indies makes festivals even more essential, because without film festivals, most of these movies would never screen before an audience.

Sundance is the Grauman’s Chinese Theater of festivals — you really do want to premiere there, to reach the biggest number of eyeballs at once. For two weeks each year, the American media pretends to give a shit about non-blockbusters. People stand in line to see documentaries, and Parker Posey is considered a star. It’s Fantasyland. So you trudge up and down the snow-covered streets, visiting all the different outlets and pimping your movie.

But wait. Didn’t I say the buzz is useless?

I think it is, at least as a component of the traditional bought-at-Sundance, released-six-months-later cycle. But if you could shorten that, and get those buzz-worthy movies from Park City in front of audiences worldwide in two weeks, I think you’d find some real success. Studios do this all the time with their quasi-indies, premiering them at a festival as a launch pad. We did it with Go in 1999.

Would it be difficult to go from Sundance to worldwide in two weeks? Absolutely. The lead time on a commercial DVD is still six weeks or more. But pay-per-view, iTunes and Netflix online have a lot more flexibility. All the legal work (clearances and contracts) would be a scramble. But we absolutely could have done it with The Nines.

Where does that leave theatrical?

I don’t know. My hunch is that for indies, the arthouse circuit is best left to special events and filmmaker Q&A’s. The Academy has rules about how long a film has to play in theaters in order to be eligible for awards, so for certain films, that may be a factor. But what readers outside Los Angeles may not realize is that many of the award-contender movies are sent to voters on DVD before they’re playing theaters.

Other small notes:

  • You can disagree with me about whether Once tanked. I loved the movie, and felt it could have and should have made a lot more. Its low budget is ultimately irrelevant, because the real money was spent on marketing.

  • A Sundance award-winner from this year, Ballast, dropped its deal with IFC and will self-distribute. The director gives a lot of good insight about why, and just how low the dollar figures are. If I were in his shoes, I might have done the same thing. With The Nines, we had Ryan Reynolds and Hope Davis, who were big enough names to generate some minimums. Without any stars, it’s tough to shake out more money.

  • Also notable is that Ballast was to be distributed through IFC’s First Take program, which debuts movies simultaneously in theaters and by video-on-demand, much like 2929’s HDNet Films program. It seems like the right idea, so I’m curious whether the business model will work.

  • The Sundance folks are adamant that it’s a festival, not a market. Redford himself has said, “We have to remind people of who we are and what we’re about…[W]hen buyers are coming in and looking at the guide (for commercial product), I don’t care about what’s commercial. I think we should leave that to the mainstream.”

Coming back to one of the key ideas in the original article, I’d stress that the real measure of success for an indie film’s release is how many people saw it. Festivals let people see your movie. So do theatrical, DVD, pay-per-view, TV and yes, piracy. Finding the right combination these elements is the challenge. I don’t think I have the answer, but I can safely say it’s not what we did on The Nines.