By Piya Sinha-Roy
PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - When newcomer filmmaker Cutter Hodierne won the Sundance Film Festival special jury prize for his short film on Somali pirates in 2012, he decided to release the movie on video-hosting site Vimeo, charging viewers $1.
The film caught the attention of the immersive journalism magazine Vice, which teamed up with Hodierne to co-produce and co-finance a feature-length version of "Fishing Without Nets." This year he returned to Sundance with that film and entered the highly selective U.S. drama competition.
Hodierne's successful exposure illustrates how companies such as Netflix, YouTube and Vimeo are stepping in to provide filmmakers with a new platform for distributing films, expanding alongside the traditional path of theatrical release.
This year, movie studios have been slow to snap up some of the buzzed-about Sundance films. So far, only a handful of films have been acquired by studios. The hot film of the festival was opening night movie "Whiplash," which attracted strong bidding and was finally bought by Sony Pictures Classics for $3 million, according to a source with knowledge of the deal.
None of the films acquired yet have hit the eight-figure level, unlike last year when Fox Searchlight purchased quirky Steve Carell comedy "The Way, Way Back" for $10 million.
Netflix, a video rental and online streaming platform, premiered documentary "Mitt" at Sundance a week ahead of the film being released on the website, drastically cutting down the time between a festival premiere and subsequent release.
For independent filmmakers, who often debut at Sundance, Netflix offers an opportunity to capitalize on the buzz generated from the festival and release to a wide audience without having to wait for a studio to distribute to theaters.
"It's an unreasonable request to expect independent films to continue playing in the cinemas as the primary source to connect with the audience," said Keith Kjarval, producer of closing night film "Rudderless."
"People are always more impressed with the theatrical release, but in reality, you see more money back if your film makes $3 million digitally."
Actor and filmmaker Mark Duplass, who was at Sundance to promote his latest film "The One I Love," told Variety that "the most important part of making a movie is making sure the film streams on Netflix," adding that it "made my career" and urging filmmakers to do the same.
Sundance films have often found a lease of life through video-on-demand platforms such those provided by RADiUS-TWC, a pioneering multi-platform boutique offspring of The Weinstein Co. Last year, RADiUS snapped up five Sundance films including two Oscar-nominated documentaries, often finding an audience through non-traditional media.
RADiUS co-presidents Tom Quinn and Jason Janego said that while not all of their films would suit the VOD model, it has proven to be a successful one for some films.
"Great movies are available also at home, for the same price as a movie ticket," Quinn said. "We like that our eclectic approach to distribution is as equally eclectic as our slate of movies."
RADiUS has yet to acquire a Sundance film this year, but was chasing a documentary and drama as of Wednesday.
NEW DISTRIBUTION MODELS
Digital media platforms were a prominent feature on Park City's Main Street, the central hub of the Sundance Film Festival where companies hire out spaces for the week and hold events for filmmakers and the public.
Video-hosting site YouTube, owned by Google Inc, set up a large space on Main Street, with events and panels on how to use the platform to build an audience. YouTube sponsors Sundance Film Festival's short film program, hosting the competition shorts.
"The short film format is really innovative. That's where we help creators understand the different stages of their campaign to build their film," said Derek Callow, director of creator marketing at YouTube.
Callow said the company was not concerned with having filmmakers release exclusive content through YouTube - rather, "exclusivity for us is not really central to our strategy. We often remove the exclusivity clause in contracts," he said.
Vimeo, a video-hosting site that is a competitor to YouTube but focuses on attracting longer videos such as short or feature films, is also making a concerted effort to connect with the Sundance community.
Vimeo, which has around 400,000 paying subscribers who generate $40 million for the website, is offering a platform for filmmakers to host their films and charge for it directly through the website, with Vimeo taking a 10 percent cut.
Kerry Trainor, CEO of Vimeo, also said the platform was not trying to compete with Netflix, but rather wanted to bring up-and-coming filmmakers like Hodierne to its roster.
Vimeo has also been involved with crowd-funding sites such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter, hosting videos and allowing project starters to seek funding through the Vimeo audience.
Kickstarter has funded 20 films that are at Sundance this year, including Zach Braff's "Wish I Was Here" and documentary "The Internet's Own Boy." Braff's film, which raised $3 million from more than 46,000 backers, was purchased by Focus Features for $2.7 million, Variety said.
"With crowd-funding, you're not just buying the film, you're buying the experience," said Greg Clayman, Vimeo's general manager of audience networks.
(Editing by Mary Milliken and Eric Walsh)