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At the Sundance Film Festival, views on the changing film business

With new formats, the Sundance Film Festival remains the top film festival to find new voices

Chase Sapphire® is a presenting sponsor of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, an independent film exhibition in the United States. Launched in 1981, the Festival showcases new movies, music events, panel discussions and more each January in Park City, Utah.

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Every January, for the last 30-odd years, moviegoers, filmmakers, agents, investors, techies, journalists, and marketers descend upon Park City to see the latest and greatest in independent films at the Sundance Film Festival. Starting at 8am, days are a rush: Three to five screenings, interspersed with meetings, post-movie Q&As, industry symposia and exhibits, and, ending, of course, with the parties — from quiet dinners for top movies execs in a house in the hills, to Hot Tub Time Machine-style dancing in ski chalets.

Yet, the festival, despite its madcap pace, remains true to its roots with a focus on artistry and independent, innovative storytelling over big studio productions. It remains one of the main bell-weather events for picking runaway hits and the next big Oscar movie. The festival, though, has no intention of resting on its laurels. Increasingly, it's also becoming a showplace place not only for feature films, but for shorts, virtual reality, and other new media.

Bigger, better bidding wars

"Sundance is the most important 'sales' festival in the world right now," says Noah Cowan, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, who has been to more than 20 Sundance Film Festivals as both a film distributor and a festival programmer. "Sundance is the place where you show a film," says Cowan, "and then a bidding war ensues between various distribution entities."

Ever since the heady days of independent cinema, when Miramax was the king of Sundance hits like sex, lies, and videotape and Reservoir Dogs, the festival has been famous for its bidding wars. And it still is – last year, Fox Searchlight acquired Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation for a record-breaking $17.5 million.

But the rise of online streaming, and social media, is changing the landscape and bringing new distribution sources to the table."If you were an independent film producer, there was really only one way to reach the broader commercial audience - through a major studio or specialty distribution label in the theaters, otherwise it was straight to video," says David Shaheen, managing director of J.P. Morgan Chase's Entertainment Group. "Now there are a lot more film buyers and distribution channels driven by changes in the way people consume content."

New channels

Alongside the traditional arthouse distributors such as Fox Searchlight and Focus Features, you can add powerhouses from the internet world— Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Vimeo, and Fandor —in the battle for film distribution rights. As a result, movies such as Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea, a big hit at the 2016 festival, was picked up for $10M by Amazon, just for the streaming rights (though Amazon is showing the film in theaters, too, so that it can qualify for the Academy Awards).

Even players that don't necessarily identify as video destinations – Conde Nast, for example – can be found at Sundance looking for short form video content both snackable and serious. The New York Times collaborates directly with the Sundance Institute to create short documentary films and showcase virtual reality projects for the festival.

Where documentaries are king

Besides the Oscar-garnering and headline-grabbing feature films, Sundance is equally known for its strengths in the documentary-film format.

Over the years acclaimed and influential documentaries from Hoop Dreams to Gasland made their first appearances at Sundance. Recently, Cartel Land, about drug wars in Mexico, was nominated for an Oscar, proving that Sundance documentaries have legs, too. This year, about a third of the over 100 feature films being shown at the festival made up of the genre.

Shorts are the new black

Another classic Sundance genre garnering increased attention nowadays is the short film. Previously considered not much more than calling cards for filmmakers to get meetings, in an age of on-the-go consumption, shorts are increasingly sought after. Sites like YouTube,Vimeo, and Dailymotion, showcase short-form video. Not to mention that the feeds on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are jammed with short films shared by users. Shorts are so big right now that Vimeo's curation team sends about 12 movie scouts to Sundance every year.

"Short form has a more powerful distribution option as the online consumer seeks snackable video while they're on the go," says Chris Kelly, chairman of Fandor, a subscription-based arthouse movie streaming site that has a mix of features and shorts.

Of course, shorts shown at Sundance not only make their way to Vimeo, but can still can transcend their format. In 2013, director Damien Chazelle showed a short, Whiplash, that effectively was the first scene of, yes, Whiplash, the feature that opened the following year's festival and was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

Firmly rooted in the idea of film as art, but open to new formats and distribution channels , Sundance continues to be the place that people look to for the next big voice. For the first time this year, the festival is officially accepting submissions for episodic-format work – aka online and TV series. "Good storytelling isn't about format or runtime," says John Cooper, the Sundance Film Festival Director, "it's about creativity and vision."

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