Steven Beer may be a New York City-based entertainment lawyer, but he describes himself as an “arts lawyer.” And his “art” of choice seems to be independent moviemaking. So where better for Beer to spend the next week than at the Sundance Film Festival, where two of his clients will be screening their films—Undertow and Homewrecker—with the hopes of finding distribution.
But the Sundance game has changed in recent years, thanks to a staggering economy and the rise of social media platforms. Beer sat down with MovieMaker to offer his expert legal opinion on these changes and what they mean for the future of independent moviemaking.
Josh Elmets (MM): Sundance offers the opportunity for unknown moviemakers to expose themselves to distribution companies and hopefully have their film picked up for release. Currently, these distribution companies are less inclined to take as many risks with independent films as they were previously. Why are these kinds of movies no longer worth the risk and to what extent has the poor economy influenced this trend?
Steven Beer (SB): Marketing and distributing independent films can be risky. Over the past year, several high profile companies, such as Warner Independent and Paramount Vantage, closed their doors while both Miramax and The Weinstein Company scaled back their operations considerably. A poor economy, escalating costs of media, the decline of DVD sales and rentals and the increasing popularity of VOD, streaming and other at-home entertainment options all contribute to a new economic reality. Distributors are urgently seeking less expensive options to market and distribute independent films these days.
MM: With the advent of digital media and viral marketing, moviemakers are coming up with some innovative alternatives to traditional distribution deals. What are some of the more unique distribution models you’ve seen as of late?
SB: We are seeing an increasing number of filmmakers and producers embracing social media as a vital resource for marketing their films. Facebook and Twitter are low-cost and efficient ways to find and build a committed audience. As for unique distribution models, I am excited about the variety of options available to filmmakers for distributing their films directly to consumers. These new models are scalable, flexible and autonomous. Today, we have a wave of new companies that can engineer event driven, semi-theatrical programs where audiences can view and purchase films and merchandise at a venue or on a website. I am also encouraged about digital distribution options such as Hulu, iTunes, Amazon and other new digital venues.
MM: From a legal standpoint, what sorts of things should moviemakers be aware of while screening a film at Sundance, or any film festival for that matter?
SB: Moviemakers would be well-advised to secure festival licenses for music in their films. For screenings at high-profile film festivals attended by distribution executives, it is strongly advised to have an attorney available or on call to review and negotiate distribution and strategic marketing agreements. This is particularly the case for agreements relating to digital rights. The value of digital rights has and will continue to increase. They are coveted by both broadcasters and home video (DVD) distributors.
MM: At Sundance this year, you will be representing two films for sale. What factors influence your decision to take an active role in a film?
SB: Representing films in today’s independent film marketplace is challenging, at best. It is a substantial investment of time. As such, my decision to represent a film as a producer’s representative relies on how strongly I feel about it—whether the film truly engages me and gets under my skin. Another important factor is whether we like the moviemaker and his or her team. If we are seeking a substantive relationship that will extend to future projects, we are more inclined to become involved in this capacity.
MM: Both personally and with respect to your job, how has Sundance changed since you have been attending? What do you look forward to most?
SB: I have attended approximately 15 Sundance Film Festivals and change has been a constant during this period. The scale of Sundance has dramatically increased as has the scope of the independent film business. Today there are armies of publicists, talent agents, managers, sales agents (both domestic and international) and distributors for every kind of media. The good news is that the festival has done a great job of providing systems and information to make our business more manageable. The bad news is that it has also become more difficult to do anything spontaneous; it’s no longer possible to pop into a movie or a restaurant without reservations.
Perhaps most significantly, we have witnessed a big change in the bargaining position within the marketplace. In contrast to Sundance Film Festivals many years ago, buyers today are much more conservative and less likely to take a risk on innovative films.
The best news however, is that moviemakers today have more options to take matters into their own hands by creating an empowerment distribution strategy that is specific to their film and addresses all media and materials. I am encouraged that they will be able to extend their control and independence from the production of the films to the marketing and distribution.