What happened was, Tom Noonan won at the Sundance Film Festival, and his movie disappeared.
“The film barely sold,” Noonan said of What Happened Was” which earned the festival’s 1994 grand jury drama prize. “And then the company went bankrupt. Their whole library got sold to one company, then another company. The film came out on video, but not DVD. It was buried in some library. I tried repeatedly to buy it back from people, but it took real strong-arming to even get the lawyers to call me.” Over lunch in the East Village, Noonan explained life in indie limbo: no one cared enough to rerelease the film. But no one was going to surrender it either.
Deals eventually expire, and rights revert; Noonan, the well-known character actor (Damages, Hell on Wheels), got his film back recently, and the timing couldn’t have been better: a wormhole has opened up between Sundance Past and the Online Present. Through it, films seemingly lost in time — or swallowed up by the gaping maw of bad distribution deals, or no distribution deals — might find commercial redemption.
Thanks to a recent arrangement between the Sundance Institute, which operates the festival, and the Manhattan distributor New Video, six Web homes — Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, iTunes, YouTube and SundanceNOW — are making Noonan’s movie, and any other eligible Sundance film, available for streaming online. The option is open to every film ever shown at the festival, or brought to a Sundance lab, or given a Sundance grant. Filmmakers don’t surrender their rights. They (17 so far, with thousands of potential participants) can opt to go with any or all of the half-dozen sites. They have, in essence, a guaranteed means of distribution.
That sigh of relief you hear is from directors heading to this year’s festival, which begins Jan. 19. The director Erin Greenwell said that before she began making the comedy My Best Day, which is part of the festival’s Next section, “I made a promise to my producer that if I had to personally go from town to town with a duffle bag of DVDs, I would.”
But for others the implications are more profound. Hal Hartley, director of indie landmarks like The Unbelievable Truth and Simple Men, was already involved with Sundance. He was financing his next film (Meanwhile) through the institute’s alliance with the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, when he was contacted by Chris Horton, the institute’s associate director of artist services, which assists filmmakers in financing, marketing and distribution.
“Chris had written me and asked whether any of my older stuff that showed at Sundance was available, and I said ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, Flirt,’ which I now have the rights to for North America,’’ Hartley said. “The licenses I gave in 1996 have finally expired. It was the opening-night film in 1996. So that’s great.” The New Video setup is impressive, he said, because it “will take on the job of positioning the film on iTunes, Amazon, all these places which deal only with aggregators and would never deal with a producer.”
Hartley called the financial arrangement exceptional. With all the legalities involving rights, he said, “you need a Kickstarter campaign just to hire the lawyers.”
To Robert Redford, who in 1984 founded the institute (which took over the festival a year later), “it’s all kind of exciting for us, because there’s a whole category of orphan films that we think are really quite good, but they don’t necessarily get picked up by distributors, who may be a little more mainstream in their thinking.”