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ArtistsServices: A Digital Bridge Connecting Sundance Institute Filmmakers with Cineastes Worldwide

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Newly announced films to be distributed by #ArtistServices’ digital partners.

Claiborne Smith

Calvin Lee Reeder’s story isn’t unfamiliar to his fellow filmmakers — or to anyone with an interest in independent film. His debut feature, The Oregonian, which screened at the 2011 Festival, is an atmospheric thriller about a woman running from her past. Reeder described The Oregonian to twitchfilm.com as a “psychic mystery,” before adding ruefully, “that description has pretty much ended every conversation about it so far.” However, the Festival’s programmers saw something singular, eclectic, and even visionary in it; and the film played to enthusiastic audiences at last year’s Festival.

Still, it left the Festival without distribution. “I had a sales agent and was ready to go,” Reeder recalls, acknowledging that the film “was not meant to please everybody.” But plenty of unconventional films have been bought at the Festival in past years. The Oregonian ended up getting a small theatrical run last fall through micro-distributor, Cinemad, but Reeder didn’t want that to be the end of the line for the film.

Now it doesn’t have to be. Thanks to Sundance Institute’s #ArtistServices program, Reeder and every other filmmaker whose feature-length work has played at the Festival (or benefited from the Institute’s Labs or grants programs) has been given a new lifeline connecting their work with global audiences. Or, as #ArtistServices’ associate director Chris Horton describes it: “An elegant, turn-key way for our artists to have great digital distribution.” Artist Services enables Institute filmmakers to share their films with audiences via iTunes, Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, SundanceNOW, and YouTube while retaining ownership of their work. Participating filmmakers are also empowered to choose where they’d like their work to be shown among those #ArtistServices partners. In other words, every artist adopted into the Sundance family is guaranteed distribution.

On January 17, #ArtistServices debuted 13 features on its various distribution platforms, including The Oregonian and Tom Noonan’s classic but neglected What Happened Was, which won the Grand Jury Prize Dramatic at the 1994 Festival, but never found its way into theatres. The complete list of newly announced films to be distributed by #ArtistServices’ digital partners can be found here.

Those partnerships follow last year’s announcement that the Institute would become Kickstarter’s first curatorial partner, enabling Institute artists to have unique access to advice and insights from Kickstarter staff about how to wage a successful fundraising campaign online. In addition, New Video, the Institute’s exclusive aggregation partner for distribution across those various portals, offers its 20 years of marketing and sales expertise to Institute artists who choose to take advantage of the new program.

Even films that have yet to be seen by audiences at the 2012 Festival have already benefited from #ArtistServices. Aurora Guerrero’s Mosquita y Mari, the pitch-perfect story of two initially hostile Latina teenagers, is playing in the NEXT showcase at this year’s Festival. Guerrero and her producer Chad Burris raised more than $80,000 for production funds via Kickstarter after #ArtistServices connected them with Kickstarter staff members, who taught them how to effectively raise money using the site. Guerrero credits their success to “the relationship I was able to establish with Kickstarter and have access to them and learn what makes a successful project, and Sundance was that bridge for me.”

The various platforms associated with #ArtistServices agreed to the partnership in part because the Institute has done much of the legwork for them. By agreeing to distribute any Festival feature or film that’s been selected for the Labs or a grant, digital distributors already know they’re handling a well-made film. “They know that we have the most diverse stories out there,” Horton says. “Sundance stands for quality. It’s not an unknown deal working with Sundance.”

The Institute is more than a passive facilitator of the deals its artists make with various digital distributors. Horton and Joseph Beyer, the Institute’s director of Digital Initiatives, become de facto coaches to #ArtistServices participants who are wary or uncertain about navigating the digital distribution landscape. “We go through their whole campaign before they publish; we know what works and what doesn’t work,” Horton says. Beyer adds, “Each filmmaker’s case is different. There’s no part of this that’s ‘do it yourself’.”

To wit, #ArtistServices has organized a comprehensive workshop on each aspect of digital distribution at this year’s Festival on January 23 from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the High West Distillery in Park City. The event will offer intensive training with experts in social media marketing and various aspects of digital distribution.

The drive to help its artists distribute their work digitally came about because the Institute’s mission isn’t limited to just finding vibrant new films and artists. The Institute is equally committed to serving the audiences who seek out indie films as it is the filmmakers who create them. “In addition to supporting the development and production of independent films, Sundance Institute is committed to connecting the best independent work with audiences,” the Institute’s executive director Keri Putnam says. “Artist Services allows us to expand that commitment year-round by providing a platform for artists to reach millions of viewers, while continuing our focus on educating and building community among our artists in ways that respond to the needs of today’s marketplace.” 

The Institute also established #ArtistServices because digital distribution is here to stay. “Digital distribution is not a flash in the pan,” Beyer says. “It’s only going to grow.” And the opportunities web-based distribution offers to artists are expanding as well. “The way we can enhance those opportunities,” Beyer explains, “is by educating all of our artists about the new developments that are happening; and how they, as indie artists, can successfully navigate them.”

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Sundance Institute Piloting Direct Individual Support for Mediamakers Through the Sundance Institute | Humanities Sustainability Fellowship

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in general, and halted production and distribution for many creatives, the nonfiction field was plagued by issues of sustainability. For several years, sustainability has been an urgent and vigorous topic of study, debate, and organizing, as more and more filmmakers find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living solely on the basis of their creative work. 

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