The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Isn't it time for the media to get over its Sundance movie sales obsession?


When I go to a film festival, there's always one overriding reason why I'm there: to see the movies. Surprise me. Shock me. Enthrall me. Disappoint me. When I come home, bleary-eyed from being in theaters all day and all night, I want to share my excitement about the movies -- and what they had to say, not whether someone paid $1.5 million for the distribution rights.

But when I read the media coverage of film festivals, in particular last week's Sundance Film Festival, it often feels as if the festival is being judged, not by the quality of its films, but by whether the movies found a buyer or not. And if they found a buyer, was it for as much money as the films went for at previous festivals.

Of course, there are exceptions, starting with critics, who do by and large write about the movies and how they fit into the culture of the moment. But too many stories out of this year's Sundance ended up judging the festival on its sales power, not on its film quality. For me, it's an unhealthy trend, especially since the era of the big film festival sale is over anyway. So why shouldn't the media start looking for a new way to gauge festival success? 

I put the question to my colleague John Horn, who spent a week covering the festival for our paper. Here's what I asked him, followed by his answer:

Question: Over the years, it feels as if when the media covers film festivals, in particular Sundance, the vast majority of stories and blog posts are about what films sell and for how much money. If Sundance has a lot of sales, it's deemed a success. If Sundance has very few sales, it is graded a failure. Is this really a healthy way to judge the success of a film festival -- by how much money is spent buying movies? And in an era where there are so many less distributors around to buy movies, isn't that an outdated way of grading the success of a festival? We always complain about the horse-race-style media coverage of political races -- isn't this just as bad?
Answer: Let’s assume that we’re not talking about a film festival. It’s a Utah car show. It’s a thousand miles from Los Angeles, hotel rooms cost a fortune, and tickets sell out a few minutes after they go on sale. Sure, you can wait in line for an admission -- in 20-degree weather, and likely for several hours. The car show is filled with the latest, greatest models -- no two are exactly alike, and each and every one has something appealing to it. But you know what? No car dealer in America will carry any of them. You can see pictures of these new automobiles, read about how many people loved them at the car show, but if you want to own -- let alone drive -- one of these cars, you can’t. Because they never leave Park City.

Now let’s put independent films where the cars were. It’s the same story if no one buys any of the Sundance movies up for distribution. You can certainly grade Sundance, like any film festival, on the quality of the movies that played there. And like any year, some movies will be better than others, and some will be so excruciatingly bad you’ll walk out after a few minutes. But if you don’t factor sales into the equation, you’re scoring (or reporting on) something in a vacuum -- because no audience anywhere can see what you’re talking about.

Business reporters are naturally drawn to stories about film festival sales, because it’s a news story about how a group of people (distributors) try to assign a monetary value to a piece of art (a movie), and why they believe the deal is worth the investment.  But if no one is buying any movies, the festival is a hermetic exercise in navel gazing. Movies are made for audiences to watch, and if the films are not distributed in a meaningful way, they won’t be seen, ever. Some movies will come out of Sundance with something less wide-reaching than a theatrical distribution deal. Some will be released through pay or free television, some through video-on-demand channels, some just on home video. Without one of these kind of deals, however, the movie might as well have never existed, as it will only have been enjoyed by a few thousand (at the very maximum) Sundance guests. “Winter’s Bone” is a great film that won this year’s grand jury prize, but if audiences are to experience it, someone has to buy it. Fortunately, Roadside Attractions did.

What’s more, the critics (and the Los Angeles Times sent two to this year’s festival) write about Sundance movies on an aesthetic score, not worrying about how (or if) they will leave Park City. And a far greater percentage of the stories and blog posts written by our paper’s non-reviewer journalists are not about sales, but about films and the creative people who write, direct and star in them. By a landslide; go count them. So if you look at the totality of at least the L.A. Times' coverage of the festival, we cover a lot more than sales and near sales. But if you don’t factor sales into the overall coverage, you’re missing the point: Movies are for more than the handful of people in Park City.

Photo: A view of Main Street in Park City, Utah, during the Sundance Film Festival. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (5)

The comments to this entry are closed.

This is an industry-wide concern, and with Sundance being the preeminent festival in the nation, and a major distributor attraction, how we relate to it is really no different than, or is influenced by how we eagerly await weekend box office numbers every Sunday afternoon.

This is a profit-driven industry like most, so, naturally, money will always be of primary interest to those who cover it.

It's called the movie BUSINESS, because it's a business.
And a festival is in the business of selling movies. And the goal of every film maker who enters any film festival is to sell their movie. First comes the money, then comes the movies.

Despite Hollywood having its biggest year at the boxoffice, virtually no indie films sold at Toronto, so brisk sales in this economy were news. Because if indie distributors don't buy these films, you wont be able to love (or loathe) them in theaters or even VOD. Given all the distributors that have disappeared, sales are very relevant to whether quality, noncommercial films can even get made in the first place.

The Hollywood Reporter might appreciate your link, but it seems dumb for an entertainment business paper's story to be singled out as an example of one of "too many stories" covering the entertainment business angle at a fest. That's the trades' job - same with Variety, Screen, parts of your paper. And it's a misleading example, because the Reporter had a separate critic's analysis last week.

Give examples of more commercial media obsessing over sales at the expense of judging film quality (EW? USA Today? ...but didn't they have critical overviews, too?). Then your thesis might have some basis in reality.

If you take a look at all of John Horn's Video's, most of the time he is just talking about which film was sold, to who and for how much and how it compares to previous sales. I was so tired of his reporting numbers. For a minute I thought he was reporting for The Wall Street Journal.

"...not worrying about how (or if) they will leave Park City."

That's a key point, I think. Assigning a Good or Bad label to the festival right after it's done - or while it's still going on - misses the larger picture it seems to me. What would be interesting would be to see one year later where the movies that debuted at Sundance were. Were they sold to a distributor or are they going the DIY route. Is the director/producer still actively promoting it. Did it get an on-demand run and how did it do. That sort of perspective that takes advantage of longer periods of time passing would be a more accurate way to judge whether the festival was a success or not.


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