Blog Post

Forget SOPA: Hollywood And Silicon Valley Make Up At Sundance

The legislative battle over SOPA highlights the cultural rift between Hollywood and Silicon Valley but one place where the two tribes seem to be playing quite nicely is in realm of independent film. That collaboration is on full display this week with the opening of the Sundance Film Festival.

Indeed, you don’t have to fly to Park City, Utah to see that tech companies are everywhere at this year’s festival. As the event kicked off Thursday, for example, Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) established a significant presence for the first time, providing extensive fest coverage through its various video channels. This includes the competition streaming of select short films on its Yahoo Screen channel – users will vote on a winner, with that short’s maker receiving a $5,000 prize.

Video sharing service Vimeo also announced that several of its short films will premiere at Sundance. And group-funding platform Kickstarter will have a number of its projects showcased at the event, too.

Meanwhile, Google’s YouTube (NSDQ: GOOG) – which has collaborated with Sundance for several years and continues to run a dedicated fest channel – also announced this week that it will conduct its own shorts competition at the Venice Film Festival in September.

The intersection between the indie-film festival circuit and big tech companies expanding into the video space makes a lot of sense.

As they seek to build video channels and evolve their programming beyond the scope of amateurish user-generated content, the festival circuit provides companies like Yahoo and YouTube access to emerging filmmaker talent that will work on the cheap.

“At Sundance, you have all of this content that isn’t encumbered by legacy deals with cable companies and such, and it’s available to be distributed on these new platforms,” said Brian Bedol, a veteran cable-industry executive who now serves as chairman of Bedrocket, a production company that operates a just-launched YouTube channel.

Bedrocket is also debuting indie comedy Sleep Walk With Me at Sundance. “It’s not only great content, and it’s not only independent of the shackles of legacy deals, it’s produced without studio and network overhead,” Bedol added.

The indie film world, meanwhile, has seen its traditional finance models collapse in recent years. While Hollywood’s major studios remain cautious regarding the disturbance of traditional release windows and finance models, indie film is embracing new digital options more than perhaps any other video content sector right now.

Fest backer the Sundance Institute, for example, ramped of its Artists Services Initiative last year. Through a partnership with Kickstarter, filmmakers involved with Sundance can use the crowd-funding service to raise money for all phases of production.

The initiative also aids with distribution through such platforms as iTunes, Hulu, Netflix (NSDQ: NFLX) and Amazon.

Ahead of the festival, Sundance Institute announced digital premiere dates through these platforms for 13 films. One of those movies is filmmaker Zack Godshall’s Lord Byron, a New York Times (NYSE: NYT) Film Critics Pick that it was shot for less than $1,000 using non-professional actors. The film was never shown theatrically before it made its digital premiere this week.

Sundance can also lay claim for the current poster child for indie’s emerging distribution model, the Wall Street crash-themed drama Margin Call. Lionsgate (NYSE: LGF) and Roadside Attractions jointly paid $1 million at last year’s Sundance to acquire U.S. distribution of the film, and that paid off, with the movie grossing $5.3 million in limited theatrical play.

However, simultaneously with its theatrical bow on Oct. 21, Margin Call was released on VOD rental through iTunes, Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN) and Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) for $6.99. The film grossed another $5 million through these channels, racking up about 500,000 rentals.