Sundance Sales Dissection: Septien (Part Two)

Today's guest post is from George Rush, producers rep and attorney.  Yesterday George started telling us about how he engineered the sale of Michael Tully's Sundance At Midnight hit, SEPTIEN.  Today's post concludes the dissection. I had been to Sundance before with Midnight films and know it can be difficult to get good buzz.  Sundance audiences are not reflective of real audiences.  It is a mixture of film nerds, rich party people, and earnest do gooders seeking some culture.  I’ve found most people want to see the buzzed about stereotypical Sundance films—The Are All Right, Winter’s Bone.  These tickets are hard to come by.  However, midnight screening tickets are easier to come by and thus people get stuck with them.  They come in hoping for some culture and get blood and guts and farts.

I’ve seen packed houses at Midnight screenings pretty empty by the time the lights came up.  Because Michael’s film, SEPTIEN,  is so different, I felt a good number of the audience and some critics would dismiss it outright because it did not fit their expectation of what a Sundance film should be.  It sort of reminds me of a friend of mine who hates Wes Anderson movies because he expects Bill Murray to always play the Bill Murray of Ghostbusters.

Those who stayed, who bought in, would be massively rewarded by SEPTIEN, but there would be some naysayers.  So my feeling was Sundance was going to be a wildcard, with champions and detractors.

With a small film without a cast, getting positive buzz is essential.  With so many high profile star driven films at Sundance, it is easy for a non-buzzed film to be overlooked.  Michael’s film is hard to describe—you just need to experience it.  Screening at Sundance would mean a buyer getting it, and having the balls to take a risk on something new.

Ideally, the Sundance formula is the buyers see a screening at the fest, the crowd loves it, the press loves it, the energy in the room reaches a fever pitch and the buyers lose their sense and overpay or get in a bidding war and the filmmakers all buy new jetskis (“the jetski scenario”).  Conversely, you have a bad screening, and that energy is sucked out of the room and it is more of an uphill battle.  Given the originality of Michael’s film and the fact it was a midnight screening, I was concerned.

However, I also thought the film was completely awesome.  I had spoken to IFC about another film I was repping about possibly including it in their Sundance stunt, that is IFC acquires the rights to the film before the festival and launches it on VOD at the same time it premieres on IFC.  I had a sense of what the range was of what they were paying, and also knew that they planned to have five films for the stunt.  Most filmmakers or reps don’t consider this option because they are holding out for the jetski scenario.  However, I felt if we could get IFC interested, perhaps we could get the other buyers interested and do something before the fest.

I have done a couple of deals with Jeff Deutchman at IFC and contacted him about Septien.  Describing the film sounded borderline crazy, so I really had to stress how much I believed in it, which I actually did.  We had a pretty good rapport, and he checked it out.  He too understood how good it was and that there was potential for a bigger film if given the chance.  It quickly was screened by the IFC team and they made a pretty decent offer.

Once we knew they were interested, we quickly got screeners to other distributors we felt might have an interest in the film, letting them know that we had a time sensitive offer.  Meanwhile, our conversations with IFC continued and the terms of the offer seemed reached our goals—recouping the costs of the film and a theatrical commitment.  IFC had a certain urgency because of their Sundance stunt and were more motivated to make this happen than I believed they’d be at Sundance.

So we were at the crossroads of taking a good deal from IFC, or rolling the dice and seeing what happened at the screening.  I know Michael was at first conflicted, but ultimately I believe quite strongly that this was the right choice and the right partner.  As we expected, Septien divided critics.  It is not a genre film, not a typical Sundance film, no stars, weird, but nonetheless an exciting cinematic experience.  I have to commend IFC for taking a chance on this.

So that’s how it went down, and I am proud to have been part of it.  There is nothing more rewarding in what I do than seeing a little film, with little to no resources, actually succeed as a film and better yet with a buyer.  It is like witnessing a miracle.  So much of the indie content is so similar in tone, style, issues and setting.

When I read summaries from film festival catalogs to my wife she thinks I’m just making up joke indie summaries.  These films are good, and what drew me to indie film in the first place.  But outside the indie film world, most people don’t care, or worse yet, hate indie films.  But to see something new, to hear a fresh voice, to have a film be outside my expectations and exceed them actually gets my adrenaline flowing.

Commercially speaking, the goals for all indie films is to breakout of the indie audience and find a larger broader audience.  Maybe I’m wrong, but I believe if our business is going to reach a new and larger audience, there needs to be more risk taking films like Septien.  I constantly hear filmmakers bemoan the state of the business, but I would also bemoan the state of most content.  Budgets are lower, buyers pay less, so if you’re going to make a bold move in your filmmaking, there is no time like the present!

Now go and order Septien on VOD!

George Rush is an entertainment attorney and producer’s rep in San Francisco.