Reinventing Film Festivals, Year Two

During last year’s Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals, I began to take notice of how both festivals were making tentative moves toward serving not merely as showcases for new independent films seeking distribution but as virtual distributors in their own right, providing online or video-on-demand access to selected films playing at their festivals.  The practice was a response to a struggling market for independent films and to the viability of online platforms such as YouTube, while traditional video retailers such as Blockbuster continue to struggle.  Now, in 2010, both festivals seem primed to expand their role as distributors, a change that may have intriguing implications for those of us who follow independent film.

Some of this change can be measured in the Sundance Next program, which highlights a number of ultra-low-budget and DIY films.  But there are a number of other changes worth tracking, including Slamdance’s decision to offer four films on demand via Microsoft’s Zune and Xbox systems.  Robert Redford’s keynote address also helped to define this new direction, highlighting the ability of Sundance to shape online distribution practices, essentially calling them “the future” of independent film.

To some extent, I am a little skeptical about this attempt to redefine Sundance.  Roger Ebert offers an astute reading of the Sundance program and promotional materials as an attempt to rebrand the festival as a “distribution business,” one that has its eyes set well beyond the Park City slopes where the festival is held, although it is important to note that the image of thousands of snow-covered indie film buffs crowding into theaters to catch the latest new discovery remains an important part of the “Sundance brand.”  Karina Longworth is even more explicit in identifying the NEXT sidebar as an attempt for Sundance to reclaim lost indie credibility:

If NEXT is partly a marketing gimmick — an institutional intervention to make it easier for a press corps easily distracted by shiny objects to care about starless films — perhaps it’s fitting that its first incarnation feels less like a revolution than a rebranding.

Karina goes on to criticize the NEXT selections for selecting films that already have a well-established pedigree–including Katie Aselton’s (The Puffy Chair) The Freebie–and that conform to relatively traditional indie film cliches including “sad-eyed boys on twinkly-scored road trips” (among others).

Matt Dentler is a little more optimistic and points to the recent New York Times article reporting on the deal between Sundance and YouTube to offer rentals of a small selection of films shown at the festival.  YouTube’s participation is connected to their emerging “Filmmakers Wanted” program that would allow budding filmmakers to make their content available for rental online.  And given that it’s often difficult for me to attend festivals or to have access to the wide array of independent films available in bigger cities, it’s certainly exciting to have what appears to be more options available than in the recent past.

On the one hand, all of these changes seem to fulfill the promise of “the long tail,” the idea that the web will open up distribution, allowing the independent artist to reach new audiences in unprecedented ways.  YouTube joins Netflix and other sites in building an immense online film library, but like Karina, I find myself feeling skeptical about how these new changes are being framed.  Robert Redford has described NEXT and online distribution as expanding the marketplace of ideas and providing documentaries more leverage for getting their ideas out to the world, and yet access to these films remains uneven in many cases.

Some of these questions have been addressed in a recent Baffler column by Astra Taylor, who challenges the ideologies of consumer and artistic liberation expressed by Chris Anderson (The Long Tail and Free) and others, and I find myself sympathetic to many of her claims about the “unlikely alliance” between “big business evangelists and smash-the-state anarchists,” a relationship that has often made me uneasy when I assess the narratives of freedom expressed in DIY film cultures. Taylor’s article is a sobering read, but it’s well worth examining as the conversations about digital distribution continue to unfold.  I don’t pretend to agree with Taylor across the board, but her voice should be heard in the midst of the digital utopianism that tends to dominate these conversations.

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