A small but significant turning point in the thirty-year history of the Sundance Film Festival happened nowhere near Park City; the small ski-resort town nestled in the mountains outside Salt Lake City that for ten colorful days becomes the pop up hub for the entertainment ecosystem.
It took place on couches in some 1,500 homes around the world. On a cold Sunday night during the 2014 Sundance Festival’s over-capacity opening weekend, the Sundance breakout fairy tale transforms into something innovative and inclusive thanks to Life Itself, a documentary about late film critic and longtime Sundance fixture Roger Ebert.
The documentary tells Ebert’s whole story from the early chapters of his journalism career, his Pulitzer Prize win, his working relationship and rivalry with crosstown competitor Gene Siskel and most of all, the final months in his battle with cancer.
True to Ebert’s well-known love of technology, Life Itself delivers a world premiere unlike other Sundance debuts. While screening in "classic" Sundance mode in front of a capacity crowd at the fitness center-turned cinema called The MARC, the film and post-film Q&A stream simultaneously offsite and online to its vast community of Indiegogo campaign supporters outside Park City—people from 26 different countries who averaged $93 in contributions to the movie.
This is the new Sundance fairy tale; becoming a social media sensation thanks to your digital community of fans. It comes thanks to the disruptive goals of the creative team behind the movie, John Sloss, founder and chief executive, Cinetic Media, the sales company for Life Itself, veteran filmmaker Steve James, who directed the movie, and Slava Rubin, CEO and co-founder of the international crowdfunding platform Indiegogo.
"Look, with Life Itself we were talking about pushing the boundaries of where film is going," Rubin tells us. "People are going to be watching the movie in a theater in Park City and at the same exact time people are going to be sitting on the couch in Omaha or Miami and watching the same exact movie."
Sundance Institute Executive Director Keri Putnam talks about embracing the disruption behind Life Itself and tweaking guidelines to allow for its same day festival premiere and digital share. She also wants to promote disruption carefully and steadily so as not to damage the Sundance brand. "I would never want to cannibalize a filmmaker’s chance to attain an acquisition deal for his film," Putnam says, speaking at the start of the festival.
But in a twist on some long ago pop song, Rubin, Sloss, and James have basically started the fire and the Sundance culture won’t be the same.
Indiegogo, which came about out of Rubin’s frustrations trying to raise money on the Internet for a foundation in honor of his late father, debuted six years ago at Sundance. Rubin says he chose the vertical of film to launch Indiegogo because Sundance filmmakers can understand the struggles of trying to access capital. Yet, Rubin emphasizes that the money is just one key benefit. What’s more valuable to filmmakers and more disruptive to the classic models of film financing, acquisition and distribution is the data Indiegogo provides to people like James and his Life Itself team as well as a recently announced partnership with direct-to-consumer platform VHX to help crowdfunded movies get seen.
"People think that an Indiegogo campaign is about the money but what people are learning is that the money is like the red herring," Rubin adds. "It’s kind of like that’s what you’re going after but the benefits you’re getting are market validation, more promotion than you ever could get, testing your marketing and the number one thing in my opinion the most informative thing is you’re creating relationships. Typically, industries, like the movies are about transactions. But you’ll never know the person who bought a ticket and in the future you’ll never contact them again. Here, you got their email addresses and you got their physical addresses and now you’re creating a relationship with these people."
James is a Sundance veteran with one of the biggest Sundance fairy tales under his belt—the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, an emotional look at the lives of two Chicago teenagers struggling to escape poverty via college basketball scholarships.
Basically, James and Sloss, whose firm Cinetic has been involved in just about every Sundance hit, share great success in the classic acquisition model.
For these two "classic" Sundance players, some things about the festival never change, and perhaps they shouldn’t. Fans scream for Selena Gomez as she walks alongside the Airbnb Haus. Actor Billy Crudup poses for publicity shots in the back room of the Cannon lounge. Meanwhile, Rubin sits at a nearby bar table and continues to chat animatedly about offering filmmakers a holistic crowdfunding model from startup through production to community building in support of the release of the movie.
"I hear it just blew up on Twitter and I heard from so many people who let me know that they watched the film and the Q&A and it kicked ass," James tells us. "It’s really thrilling because we have all these people out there who have seen the film and who are posting about it and tweeting about it and telling their friends.
"Now, I would never want the film festival experience to be compromised or go away because suddenly people feel like they don’t need to leave home to experience Sundance. I don’t think that will ever happen. I think when technology is working the best it enlarges the choices. It doesn’t take away other choices. If you can come to a festival like this it will always be what you want to do. But if you don’t have resources or the ability to do that and it takes a lot of resources to do this, why not democratize this experience in some way? On the evidence of Life Itself, it worked for a lot of people."
Crowd building is about inclusivity and building the largest community of fans possible.
It was only two years ago that emerging artists from the fringes like Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, co-directors of Indie Game: The Movie, helped introduce crowdfunding and DIY distribution to the Sundance ecosystem.
"Crowdfunding is about community building," Sloss says. "It’s about finding your core supporters and bringing them in at an earlier stage. Some people do that through with sneak previews of films before they open. To me the future is about communities and if you can find that community and they can actually help you finance the film all the better. More importantly it’s about investing them in the movie."
It’s also about making a pivot away from recent high-profile Kickstarter projects from well-known actors like Zach Braff (Wish I Was Here) and Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars).
"I was concerned that crowdfunding was heading in the wrong direction and that it was perceived to be the province of rich celebrities who wanted other people to fund their pet projects," Sloss says, celebrating the success of the Life Itself screening at his company’s party. "I wanted to do our little bit to put it back on a different path and focus on community building and that’s hopefully what we did."
The culture economy is changing and the appeal of consumer data owned by filmmakers and better financing terms via crowdfunding are factors leading filmmakers to look at the Life Itself experiment and want to join this disruption because the classic model is in need of a jolt.
"Even if a campaign hasn’t raised a single dollar on Indiegogo, we often say the campaign is still successful," Rubin adds. "These people are learning so much information. People are providing feedback like, hey man, your video sucks or I don’t know what your product is all about. Profits are no longer the only thing. It’s about transactions and data and learning things that will help a filmmaker the next time around."