June 17, 2009
By Sharon Swart
Over the past eight years, Sundance vet Trevor Groth has been moonlighting at a little festival in Nevada called CineVegas. He's built the fest into a post-Cannes destination for the indie world and a sassy summer answer to Sundance (though on a much smaller scale).
The six-day Vegas event, which wrapped Monday, again boasted an impressive turnout of key indie distribs including IFC, Miramax, Sony Pictures Classics and Summit.
There may not have been any actual distribution deals inked there – an elusive dream for most fest pics these days, anyway – but filmmakers got real exposure and face time with the indie world's busiest buyers.
Certain fests, and the connections they bring, seem to remain crucial for talent and industry execs alike. CineVegas proved to be one of those. In its 11th year, the event drew important indie execs because they like Groth (who last month was elevated to Sundance's director of programming) and his taste in movies – and he offers more fun than there is to be had at many other festivals.
For instance, rather than the standard panel session, CineVegas addressed complicated and pressing indie distribution issues during a brunch "game" of Distribution Roulette on Saturday. Among the various execs who were put on the spot were IFC Films' Arianna Bocco, Magnolia's Tom Quinn, CAA's Dina Kuperstock, IMDb's Christian Gaines, Oscilloscope's David Fenkel and Cinetic Digital Rights Management's Matt Dentler. As a befeathered showgirl held up their name cards, each exec spun the wheel to land on a different indie film for which they had to dream up a distribution strategy.
And then they were judged.
Quinn, who came up with some of the funniest lines, was declared the winner. His strategy to distribute an "edgy, sexy indie film" included an influencer community among strippers to encourage group ticket sales. He added that he'd create the kind of buzz for the film that would get people to "Twitter their balls off."
Quinn later confided it doesn't really matter what you do to create hype and buzz. "It's about good films – audiences will always find a good film." He said auds had no trouble finding Magnolia pickups like revered Swedish horror pic "Let the Right One In" and Oscar-winning doc "Man on Wire."
On opening night, CineVegas godfather Dennis Hopper slowly rose from a lift onto the Planet Hollywood theater stage to sounds of "Born to Be Wild," and, over the course of six days, other cinema notables like Jon Voight, James Caan and Willem Dafoe popped into the fest's Palms Casino headquarters. Attendees gambled, bowled and took in a cool reading by Found magazine's Davy Rothbart.
And, yes, there were strip-club visits. (Sapphire Gentleman's Club is a CineVegas sponsor.)
Most important, though, indie decisionmakers watched movies and made themselves accessible. And filmmakers made the most of the opportunity – from "Harmony and Me" helmer Robert Byington working fest headquarters to recruit people to his screening to "Modus Operandi" writer-director Frankie Latina handing out custom-made gambling chips at a brunch to promote himself and his pic.
For some, finding distribution wasn't even a goal at the fest. Opening-night pic "Saint John of Las Vegas," a quirky road movie starring Steve Buscemi and financed by a community of investors via IndieVest, already has a plan in place for its fall release. IndieVest's Mark Burton said the strategy was never to "spin the roulette wheel at a festival for a deal." Instead, he's got former HBO Films marketing maven Dennis O'Connor and indie distribution vet Andy Gruenberg onboard for a planned 20- to 30-city release.
IndieVest's formula is to raise a pic's production budget and P&A financing in one pool so that all the investors recoup at the same time. And Burton added that his investors – some 70 of which were on hand to see "Saint John" premiere in Vegas – receive first-dollar gross.
Whether this is the way forward is anyone's guess. But at least the film's in the can, and they have a plan.