The Reality of #ArtistServices (or a Doc's POV)

1989, 2002, 2004: Doc lovers will recognize the dates as the years that Michael Moore released the films Roger and Me, Bowling for Columbine, and Fahrenheit 911. Box Office Mojo grosses list $6.7 million, $21 million and $120 million respectively, give or take some change. Whatever you think about Moore’s films, each of these releases offered a sense that the potential in documentary distribution was only just beginning to be tapped.

No doubt these were outsize successes, and they should not obscure the fact that the vast number of documentaries produced in the U.S. do not even have traditional distribution deals—and if they do, the rarely break the $500,000 mark, let alone the $1 million mark. Yet Moore’s increasingly successful releases pointed to tantalizing possibilities, even as the distribution options for outstanding independent documentaries continue to thwart even the most intrepid filmmakers. This is where Sundance’s newest initiative, the #ArtistServices Program, will, we hope, play a transformative role.

In a nutshell, #ArtistServices will be a game changer if it accomplishes one simple task: helping filmmakers more effectively leverage their film’s potential. The program is designed to support filmmakers and their stakeholders in providing strategic resources to create flexible strategies for distribution.

Available to Sundance Institute-supported films through our creative programs and through the Sundance Film Festival, the initiative combines in-depth knowledge resources with creative funding and web marketing partners like Kickstarter and Topspin with a range of pre-negotiated deals with major digital platforms, including Hulu, Netflix, Amazon and more. These are all crafted to benefit the artist, in an age where the idea of a sustainable career on both the feature and the documentary fields is hard to imagine and even harder to accomplish.

It is an idea that has been blue skied for at least a decade by filmmakers, funders, non-profits and other stakeholders, and now Sundance Institute is taking a flying leap into the unknown vortex we know as distribution hell. We don’t know exactly what will happen, but we do believe in the assumptions that have guided the program’s design. It is non-profit, artist-led and future-leaning. It combines community with creativity, and keep the control points in the hands of the filmmakers or their designees. It is flexible, responsive and scaleable.

In the age of information, it’s all about curation. For film to survive in this new age, filmmakers need access to and mentoring with the new digital tools, and cutting edge ideas about reaching the audience. As someone working with independent documentaries for over 15 years now, I think that the timing couldn’t be better for a service like this, whose vision is to extend Sundance Institute’s founding mandate to support the artist, to hardwiring the connection between audience and artist, with an eye towards a sustainable future.

We are good at telling stories that need to be told; now, again guided by the creativity of the artist, we can reach the audiences that need to be reached. Let’s see what happens together.

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