The Bedford Shakespeare: The Bard in Hypertext

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on January 28, 2015. 

Most editions of Shakespeare’s plays are exactly what you’d expect: text, footnotes, some introductory remarks. They cram words into your ears, but don’t give much sense of them, or the context of the plays, or how the plays make context for our lives today.

A new edition, The Bedford Shakespeare, is different. It presents the 25 most-studied plays as part of an experiential banquet, which also includes essays, contexts, explanations, quotes from actors and lots of illustrations; one of the authors calls it “a hypertext reading experience.” I imagine students will find their appetites expanded with this encounter. I recently talked with the authors, Russ McDonald, Professor of English Literature at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and Lena Cowen Orlin, Professor of English at Georgetown University and Executive Director of the Shakespeare Association of America. (Full disclosure: Bedford/St. Martin’s is also my publisher.)

ADAM: Hi, Russ and Lena! First off, I have to congratulate you. The book is quite an undertaking, and I learned a lot from it.

RUSS: Thank you. The Bedford people did such a splendid job on the physical book that I have to say that, when I open it, it feels friendly and inviting to me.

LENA: Thanks! I have to confess that I learned a lot from it, too. You know, most scholarly research publications are narrow and focused, but the world of Shakespeare is a big one. Here, we had the chance to think in terms of poetry, history, imagination, performance, human relationships, argument, emotion—it was fun! And it was fun to know that, no matter how many ideas we tried to open up, for teachers and students these are just springboards to more.

ADAM: There are a lot of Shakespeare editions out there. Why do another one?

RUSS: This is, of course, an essential question. The kinds of books we use change over time. It used to be, in the 1950s and ‘60s, that almost everyone in American colleges used the G. B. Harrison edition. As students, Lena and I were among the first to use the Complete Pelican Shakespeare, and this was followed by the Riverside Shakespeare and David Bevington’s revision of Hardin Craig’s old edition.

All these editions, and we should also include Greenblatt’s Norton Shakespeare, are fundamentally similar: a comprehensive Introduction to the period, then introductions to each of the plays, with textual apparatus and such. But they all look fundamentally the same: indeed they look as if they might have been edited in the eighteenth century, with a large body of text on the page and then notes at the bottom of the page.

The Bedford Shakespeare is intended frankly as a pedagogical edition, a volume that contains many of the classroom strategies, topics, and illustrations that we have found helpful in our years of teaching. And these materials are integrated into the presentation of the play text. So that, for example, accompanying Macbeth’s great soliloquy in Act One, scene seven is a five-hundred word analysis of the loaded word “success” as it functions in that speech and indeed throughout the play. Readers do not have to stop and absorb that discussion, but they may do so, or they may come back to it. We have also (as you’ve noticed) dismantled the formidable General Introduction and chopped it into twenty-five “Contexts” designed to enrich the reader’s understanding of early modern European culture. Finally, the extensive emphasis on performance—production photos (and not just the RSC) and quotations from actors distinguishes this volume from most Shakespeare texts. We hope that some of the visual materials will stimulate readers’ imaginations about possibilities for staging and for interpretation.

LENA: When we first talked about the Bedford project, Russ pointed out that the way in which Shakespeare’s plays are presented on the printed page hasn’t really changed since the first “modern” edition in 1709. Until he said that, I probably took it for granted that every Shakespeare play needs a long, scholarly introduction and then two columns of small, dense type on each page. Our genius editors at Bedford had a different vision. This is more like a hypertext reading experience, with pop-up information and illustrations, all keyed to individual Shakespearean lines. Often, I bring together several short quotations to show that Shakespeare has been understood in different ways by different critics and actors and that there’s room for new ideas from students, too. Next, we split that long, scholarly introduction into two parts. Before the play there’s a very brief preview that gives some important start-up information and, we hope, identifies some of the most intriguing aspects of the play. The students don’t encounter our own interpretation until after they’ve read the play and developed some interpretations of their own. We also provide simple plot summaries for two reasons. First, students can read a scene and then check back to make sure that they’ve got the gist. Second, we want them to understand that Shakespeare is about much more than plot; plot’s just the beginning. Finally, we add some information about the afterlives of the plays to show Shakespeare’s long influence in world culture. For me, assembling the supporting material for each play was like doing a jigsaw puzzle of meanings and ideas. I hope that every student will find at least one piece of the puzzle that captures their interest and inspires them to think in more sophisticated ways about Shakespeare.

ADAM: I was thrilled to see Titus Andronicus included, because it is often omitted from works that don’t include all the plays. How did you decide which plays to include?

RUSS: Since we were basing the contents on the plays that mostly get taught, the core of the book was pretty easy to determine, but there were fuzzy cases at the margin. Actually, Titus has come into fashion in university courses in the past two decades, partly owing to Julie Taymor’s film. After twenty-five we had to give up: Lena especially wanted The Merry Wives of Windsor, I wanted Pericles, and we both wanted 3 Henry VI, but physical requirements prevailed.

LENA: I am with you on Titus Andronicus. I think if Russ and I had had to decide which plays to include we would not still be friends. But Bedford conducted extensive research to find out which plays are taught most often, and that research guided the decisions. Plays go in and out of fashion; a good film version can move a less popular play onto the syllabus, for example. I think that’s what happened with Titus Andronicus. The reason I was so happy to include Titus is because one of my most memorable theater experiences ever was a production directed by Deborah Warner for the Royal Shakespeare Company. You remember that the character Lavinia is raped, has her tongue cut out, and has her hands cut off. After the scene of her brutalization, she is briefly offstage before she comes on again to be discovered by her uncle. I happened at this production to be seated on the aisle as the actress walked to the rear of the theater to wait for her re-entry. As she went back on, though, she tripped over someone who had fainted in that aisle. Later I found out that at every single performance, someone fainted or rushed from the room, nauseated. I was very concerned in the Bedford edition that our supporting materials should honor that moment. Go back in history and you’ll find it over and over again. The first major modern production was in 1923 at the Old Vic in London. They advertised that they kept an ambulance at the ready and stocked extra supplies of alcohol for patrons who needed to steady their nerves at the intermission. This is a very powerful play, and students today are more capable than their parents were of appreciating the significance of its grotesquery and violence and despair.

ADAM: In your Previews, there’s a recurring theme of strangeness vs familiarity, which is a version of “compare and contrast.” It recurs in different forms, as in your introduction to Henry V, where you discuss that we can read the play as “both/and.” How does Shakespeare do that? Do you think the familiarity is especially relevant to the modern reader, because we know Shakespeare even before we have officially read or seen the works? And was Shakespeare “strange” even in his own time?

RUSS: I would say that “familiarity” is something of a trap: I’d like students to read Hamlet as if they’d never heard of it before, although I admit the difficulty of this. The “both/and” phenomenon is actually an important critical principle, one of the characteristics that makes Shakespeare Shakespeare. In a famous article in 1976 or so Norman Rabkin wrote about “Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V,” arguing that the play invites you to see Henry both as a hero and as a thug, but that you can’t see both views at the same time. This multifarious way of looking is one of the qualities that make the plays endlessly readable and watchable.

LENA: Henry V is a great example of what you’re talking about. This play has a long history of being staged like a great patriotic war movie. In fact, there are two important movie versions, and while Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V is more aware of the human cost of war than Laurence Olivier’s was, still Branagh can’t help playing Henry as much of a hero as Olivier did. It’s irresistible: there’s a lot of action, and a lot of stirring inspirational rhetoric, and Henry wins the war and wins the girl. When you read the play, it’s easier to see that it’s much more complicated than that. Shakespeare’s audiences would already have known a play by another guy, a playwright whose name we don’t know, who wrote The Famous Victories of Henry V. So everyone probably expected Shakespeare to give them the familiar story of the most heroic and valiant king in English history. But Shakespeare had already written so many plays at this point that he wasn’t about to do something easy and uncomplicated, something that had already been done before. He did make this play strange, by showing the calculation, even cruelty, that goes along with a king’s kind of power and ambition. Today we’re ready to recognize the “both/and.” With the Bedford edition, we hope that students will learn that the first way they understand a play isn’t the only way and shouldn’t be the last way. Every play is always strange, in the sense that there’s always more to discover in it.

ADAM: Your contextual material pulls no punches, as in the discussion of race and anti-Semitism.

RUSS: Thank you. We tried to divide up the tricky topics so that neither of us was excessively burdened with writing about sensitive problems. In dealing with such matters as race and misogyny, it’s vital to maintain a sense of balance: we don’t want to read the plays only through the lens of our twenty-first century interests; on the other hand, Shakespeare makes these problems central to some of the greatest plays, and we deform the works if we give insufficient attention to such concerns. For us, the difficulty is to introduce such questions while taking into account both a modern and an early modern point of view. To take a single example, in a play like The Comedy of Errors, the beating of the servants by their masters can be unsettling, and yet the farcical nature of the comedy provides a kind of insulation for the audience. And still the violence can be troubling.

LENA: I often teach a course called “Shakespeare’s Problem Plays.” This is a term from the turn of the twentieth century that was primarily about genre. Can you really call Measure for Measure and Troilus and Cressida comedies? And yet they’re not quite tragedies, either; labeling them is a problem. In my class, I expand the idea to include subjects that are problematic. Is The Merchant of Venice about anti-Semitism or is it anti-Semitic? Is Othello about racism or is it racist? Is Much Ado About Nothing about sexism or is it sexist? I always take my students to at least one local theater production, so I change the syllabus every semester to include whatever’s being staged. Believe me, every play is a “problem” in the sense that it is grappling with political and emotional issues that we’re still living with. This is one reason we still read Shakespeare: he was concerned with issues that have remained problems for 400 years. But I like to approach Shakespeare this way not because he’s a writer “for all time,” but instead to show how alive and engaged his plays were in their own moment and how they’re now vehicles for us to engage with the problems of our moment. Shakespeare is good for thinking with.

ADAM: For each of you, what was your first introduction to Shakespeare?

RUSS: I had two introductions, one disastrous, one miraculous. My tenth-grade encounter with Julius Caesar and As You Like It was not a success—the latter I was required to read on my own, and, well, I did not like it. Then in my last year of high school I had a splendid advanced studies teacher who taught us Twelfth Night, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. My eyes were opened. I should also add that when I graduated from college I went to England and saw everything at Stratford-upon-Avon, including Judi Dench in the famous John Barton production of Twelfth Night, and I thought the plays were the most beautiful things I had ever seen.

LENA: Gosh, that’s hard to remember. I’ll tell you my first formative memory. I grew up in the American Midwest, in a town that hadn’t yet developed culturally. But in high school, my English teacher took us on a field trip to see a production of The Taming of the Shrew. One of the reasons I was so excited about the Bedford project was that it gives us an opportunity to suggest how many different ways students can encounter Shakespeare. Every time I read a play, I find something I hadn’t noticed before. Every time I go to the theater, I hear at least one line in an entirely new way. Every time I teach Shakespeare, a student understands something about a character that I hadn’t picked up on.

ADAM: How might parents introduce children to Shakespeare today?

RUSS: There are countless tools for doing so: children’s theatre, simplified stories, cartoons (like the student who, in a class on Hamlet, pipes up with “This is just like The Lion King!”), etc. I always think that seeing a production is key, but you shouldn’t force things too early.

LENA: There are so many more avenues to Shakespeare these days. It used to be that all people had were the prose versions known as “Lambs’ Tales,” published by Charles and Mary Lamb in 1807. In the mid-twentieth century we had Classic Comics versions. But now there are illustrated prose versions and simplified verse versions and amazing graphic versions. You can find nearly any Shakespeare scene on YouTube, and some of these are animated. Many professional theater companies have small groups of actors who will travel to local schools to do Shakespeare workshops and performances. They’re working to develop the theater audiences of the future, and they’re great at engaging students in lively and imaginative ways. Parents who aren’t actors can still try reading Shakespeare aloud.

The Bedford ShakespeareADAM: Tell me about the cover. That’s the Ninth Doctor from Dr. Who pointing to an orthodontic problem, right?

RUSS: Yes, I have had some funny comments about the particular canine tooth to which he is pointing. Bedford did consider an Othello shot and apparently took a vote among potential users. But clearly the cover does its job by instantaneously identifying the product: the image of Hamlet and the skull of Yorick has been something like a Shakespeare brand since the eighteenth century.

LENA: Hmm. Now that you point it out, that is one mean incisor. And good eye about the actor, Christopher Eccleston! Our wonderful Bedford editor Rachel Goldberg found the cover illustrations. It seems to me like the perfect choice because it’s an image that’s understood worldwide. A man with a skull: we all know that’s Hamlet; we all know that’s Shakespeare.

Buy The Bedford Shakespeare here.

Top image: Shakespeare’s first folio; courtesy Wikimedia.

Free Range Distribution It’s Viable for Sundance and Slamdance Films

Originally published in Cultural Weekly on January 21, 2015

Inside Track for Independent Filmmakers, my new book that gives step-by-step instructions for filmmakers to get their movies made and seen, shares important tips on the newest distribution frontier. Call it Free Range Distribution, which captures the energy and Wild West experience you’ll find here. (It’s a term I learned from my friends at Seed & Spark, an organization that supports and facilitates independent filmmaking.)

If you’re a filmmaker with a film at Sundance or Slamdance, or if you want to be, you may find that Free Range Distribution is a viable option for getting your work in front of your audience. If you’re in the audience, and you want to see films that aren’t “big” enough for traditional distribution, you may find that Free Range Distribution is the best hope you’ll have of encountering movies that fit your taste.


What is Free Range Distribution?

Free Range Distribution platforms are websites that make it possible for filmmakers to sell or rent their movies. In a digital setting, a “sale” can be defined as a download that the customer can keep forever, and a “rental” is a streaming or viewing opportunity that expires within a certain period of time, usually 24 to 72 hours. Sale prices are typically higher than rental prices.

These distribution platforms go well beyond the monetization strategies of more basic sites like YouTube, where interaction is limited to advertising or requesting a donation. Instead, these platforms allow you to have a direct, transactional relationship with individual audience members.

Some Free Range Distribution sites are open to everyone, such as Vimeo, which allows you to upload and sell your movie as long as you subscribe to its Pro service. Other ones are more selective and require a submissions and acceptance process. I prefer these selective platforms because there are fewer movies on them, and their curation procedure establishes a certain level of quality. At the same time, they charge more for their services, through either a setup fee or a share of revenue.

[alert type=alert-white ]VIEW OUR SUNDANCE BY THE NUMBERS INFOGRAPHIC[/alert]

If you’re a filmmaker interested in exploring the Free Range Distribution option, you need to do your homework. There are many Free Range Distribution platforms available (some are listed in the Essential Resources section of my book), and because this is an emerging and fluid marketplace, their terms and offerings change frequently. Look for a platform that has been successful for films similar to yours and that has the features most important to you.

If you select a platform that has a submissions procedure, study it carefully and make sure you have all your materials in order. Often, staff members are available by email or phone to help guide you through the process, and to answer questions as you determine if this is the right platform for you.

It’s a good idea to be in touch with your potential Free Range distributors early on in your filmmaking journey, even before your movie is finished. You’ll learn what is possible and what is not, and it will be just one more step in planning your release strategy well before you premiere your film—which is exactly what the big studios do.

A frame from the Indiegogo campaign for 'Across the Sea,' a first feature directed by Esra Saydam and Nisan Dag. screening at Slamdance 2015

A frame from the Indiegogo campaign for ‘Across the Sea,’ a first feature directed by Esra Saydam and Nisan Dag. screening at Slamdance 2015

However, no matter which Free Range Distribution platform you choose, be prepared: you must be your own marketing department. For any creative entrepreneur, in any field, this job requirement is the most important and the most uncomfortable.

Let’s look at discomfort and importance.

For creative people, those of us who work primarily alone in coffee shops or studios, it is truly difficult to step into the public sphere and trumpet their own stuff. This is true for filmmakers as well, even though there’s a lot of social activity involved in on-set camaraderie. When your movie’s done, you’ll probably feel the film will speak for itself.

Newsflash: it won’t. It’s your job to speak up for it. You must demonstrate to the world how important your film is, and you do this by talking about it, in every medium, at every chance you get.

If you choose Free Range Distribution, marketing is 100% a requirement, and you must build out and execute your own marketing plan. Movie tickets—or downloads—are not going to sell themselves. You must bring the audience to your film, hold their hands, entice and encourage them, and, finally, get their money.

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1. Buy Inside Track for Independent Filmmakers at Dolly’s Bookstore on Main St. in Park City.
2. Take a creative photo of the book somewhere in Park City.
3. Email your photo to and you’ll get FREE his popular Crowdfunding webinar, a $15 value.
Details at Dolly’s Bookstore.

How do you prepare yourself? Fortunately, marketing is not magic; it simply requires that you plan for it, and that you have a clear understanding of your film. You need to:

  • Know what your film is about.
  • Know who your audience is with great specificity. Your film is not “for everybody.” By definition, each independent movie has a clear-cut, distinct niche audience, not a general demographic.
  • Know the size and duration of your social media following (and the social media following of your actors and creative team). You need to build it up over the year you are making your movie, so they are waiting for you on the day you release.
  • If you did a crowdfunding campaign, which is a good idea as an audience-engagement tool, maintain a strong relationship with the contributors (and the people who peeked but did not contribute), so you are ready to turn them into your core advocates.

If you and your team take these steps, you’ll be well on your way.

In case you didn’t notice, you have just become the Chief Marketing Officer of your very own film company! That, along with persistence, talent, passion and big ideas, is one of the essential attributes of successful independent filmmakers today.

Buy Inside Track for Independent Filmmakers here.

This article is adapted from Inside Track for Independent Filmmakers by Adam Leipzig. Copyright © 2015 by Bedford/St. Martin’s. Used with permission of the publisher.

Top image: ‘Western’ / U.S.A., Mexico (Directors: Bill Ross, Turner Ross), screens in the Sundance 2015 U.S. Documentary Competition. Photo courtesy Sundance Institute.

And the Academy Award Goes to… Independent Films

Independent films achieved the lion’s share of Academy Award nominations. The Oscars will be awarded on Sunday, February 22.

This year, the numbers are truly remarkable, and show the amazing strength of independent filmmaking. Seven of the eight Best Picture nominations, all of the Best Directing nominations, 18 of the 20 Best Acting nominations, 9 of the 10 Screenplay nominations and 4 of the 5 Editing and Cinematography nominations went to indies.


Why? One reason is that as the quantity of studio films has declines, the number of quality indies has increased. Of the 600 movies released each year, about 140 come from studios — a number that has decreased from 200 five years ago. New independent financiers have stepped to the plate, and are bankrolling films with budgets of $20 million and more, attracting top talent and allowing artists exceptional freedom.

Not all of the nominated indie movies had such lofty budgets, though. The Grand Budapest Hotel cost $31 million and Birdman cost $18 million, but Boyhood only cost $4 million — all the more impressive because its budget was spread over 12 years of filmmaking. The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything both cost approximately $15 million.

For your convenience, indie movie nominees are in boldface.

American Sniper
Clint Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper and Peter Morgan, Producers
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Alejandro G. Iñárritu, John Lesher and James W. Skotchdopole, Producers
Richard Linklater and Cathleen Sutherland, Producers
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Wes Anderson, Scott Rudin, Steven Rales and Jeremy Dawson, Producers
The Imitation Game
Nora Grossman, Ido Ostrowsky and Teddy Schwarzman, Producers
Christian Colson, Oprah Winfrey, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, Producers
The Theory of Everything
Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Lisa Bruce and Anthony McCarten, Producers
Jason Blum, Helen Estabrook and David Lancaster, Producers

Steve Carell in Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper in American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything

Robert Duvall in The Judge
Ethan Hawke in Boyhood
Edward Norton in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Mark Ruffalo in Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons in Whiplash

Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones in The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore in Still Alice
Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon in Wild

Patricia Arquette in Boyhood
Laura Dern in Wild
Keira Knightley in The Imitation Game
Emma Stone in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Meryl Streep in Into the Woods

Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game

Big Hero 6
Don Hall, Chris Williams and Roy Conli
The Boxtrolls
Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable and Travis Knight
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold
Song of the Sea
Tomm Moore and Paul Young
The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya
Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura

Ida (Poland)
Leviathan (Russia)
Tangerines (Estonia)
Timbuktu (Mauritania)
Wild Tales (Argentina)

American Sniper
Written by Jason Hall
The Imitation Game
Written by Graham Moore
Inherent Vice
Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson
The Theory of Everything
Screenplay by Anthony McCarten
Written by Damien Chazelle

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
Written by Richard Linklater
Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
Written by Dan Gilroy

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Emmanuel Lubezki
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Robert Yeoman
Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
Mr. Turner
Dick Pope
Roger Deakins

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Milena Canonero
Inherent Vice
Mark Bridges
Into The Woods
Colleen Atwood
Anna B. Sheppard and Jane Clive
Mr. Turner
Jacqueline Durran

Laura Poitras, Mathilde Bonnefoy and Dirk Wilutzky
Finding Vivian Maier
John Maloof and Charlie Siskel
Last Days in Vietnam
Rory Kennedy and Keven McAlester
The Salt of the Earth
Wim Wenders, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado and David Rosier
Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry
Aneta Kopacz
Our Curse
Tomasz Sliwinski and Maciej Slesicki
The Reaper (La Parka)
Gabriel Serra Arguello
White Earth
J. Christian Jensen

American Sniper
Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
Sandra Adair
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Barney Pilling
The Imitation Game
William Goldenberg
Tom Cross

Bill Corso and Dennis Liddiard
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Frances Hannon and Mark Coulier
Guardians of the Galaxy
Elizabeth Yianni-Georgiou and David White

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Alexandre Desplat
The Imitation Game
Alexandre Desplat
Hans Zimmer
Mr. Turner
Gary Yershon
The Theory of Everything
Jóhann Jóhannsson

“Everything Is Awesome” from The Lego Movie
Music and Lyric by Shawn Patterson
“Glory” from Selma
Music and Lyric by John Stephens and Lonnie Lynn
“Grateful” from Beyond the Lights
Music and Lyric by Diane Warren
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” from Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me
Music and Lyric by Glen Campbell and Julian Raymond
“Lost Stars” from Begin Again
Music and Lyric by Gregg Alexander and Danielle Brisebois

The Grand Budapest Hotel
Production Design: Adam Stockhausen; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
The Imitation Game
Production Design: Maria Djurkovic; Set Decoration: Tatiana Macdonald
Production Design: Nathan Crowley; Set Decoration: Gary Fettis
Into the Woods
Production Design: Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Anna Pinnock
Mr. Turner
Production Design: Suzie Davies; Set Decoration: Charlotte Watts

The Bigger Picture
Daisy Jacobs and Christopher Hees
The Dam Keeper
Robert Kondo and Dice Tsutsumi
Patrick Osborne and Kristina Reed
Me and My Moulton
Torill Kove
A Single Life
Joris Oprins

Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis
Boogaloo and Graham
Michael Lennox and Ronan Blaney
Butter Lamp (La Lampe Au Beurre De Yak)
Hu Wei and Julien Féret
Talkhon Hamzavi and Stefan Eichenberger
The Phone Call
Mat Kirkby and James Lucas

American Sniper
Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Martín Hernández and Aaron Glascock
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Brent Burge and Jason Canovas
Richard King
Becky Sullivan and Andrew DeCristofaro

American Sniper
John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff and Walt Martin
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and Thomas Varga
Gary A. Rizzo, Gregg Landaker and Mark Weingarten
Jon Taylor, Frank A. Montaño and David Lee
Craig Mann, Ben Wilkins and Thomas Curley

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dan DeLeeuw, Russell Earl, Bryan Grill and Dan Sudick
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett and Erik Winquist
Guardians of the Galaxy
Stephane Ceretti, Nicolas Aithadi, Jonathan Fawkner and Paul Corbould
Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter and Scott Fisher
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Richard Stammers, Lou Pecora, Tim Crosbie and Cameron Waldbauer

Top image: ‘Boyhood,’ directed by Richard Linklater and starring Ellar Coltrane, was made on a budget of $2.4 million. Photo courtesy IFC Films.

Sundance 2015 Infographic: Dollars and Distribution

$4.6 Billion Invested in Indies; Nearly All Festival Films Get Distribution

Congratulations Sundance filmmakers! You have a 4 in 5 chance of getting a distribution deal.

That’s one key finding from our data-crunching preparation for the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. As recently as 2010, getting distribution at Sundance was rare. In that year, as in years prior, only about 10 percent of the movies got deals. But then came the Great Digital Shift, with the explosion of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, iTunes and other opportunities for video on demand. We may now predict that more than 100 of the 124 feature films at Sundance this year will get some form of distribution opportunity.

Our key economic finding is equally staggering. We estimate that the amount of financial investment in all the feature-length films submitted to Sundance is $4.65 billion. To put that in perspective, the motion picture studios and Netflix each spend about $3 billion annually producing and acquiring content. The total investment in independent filmmaking significantly tops that number; once again we may call Indies the Eighth Studio.

SEE ANIMATED AND INTERACTIVE SUNDANCE 2015 INFOGRAPHIC (please allow a moment for it to load)

'Advantageous,' directed by Jennifer Phang, screens in the US Dramatic Competition. Photo courtesy Sundance Institute.

‘Advantageous,’ directed by Jennifer Phang, screens in the US Dramatic Competition. Photo courtesy Sundance Institute.

However, unlike the movie studios, which have the MPAA as a trade association, there is no such thing for independent film. No official organization compiles data on independent filmmaking. To address this need, last year we published our first Sundance infographic, and we continue our work with better data this year. Because Sundance is the premiere independent film festival in the world, we use information from Sundance as a proxy for quantifying indie movies overall.

Follow the Money

With the help of the Sundance Institute, we are now able to break out the number of dramatic (or narrative) features submitted each year, and the number of documentary features submitted each year. For the 2015 festival, there were 2,309 dramatic features submitted, and 1,796 documentary features submitted.

Then we went a step further and canvassed our colleagues in an effort to estimate the average budgets of these indie dramatic and documentary features. I spoke with independent producers (both domestic and international), sales agents, distributors, and the heads of the independent divisions of some of the largest talent agencies. I asked each of them to estimate the average dramatic and documentary feature budget, and I averaged their responses. The collective results? Estimated average budget for indie dramatic features: $1.7 million. Estimated average budget for documentary features: $400,000.

This means that the total estimated financial investment in features submitted to Sundance tops $4.65 billion — $3.93 billion invested in dramatic features, and $718 million in documentaries. Of course, all of those movies didn’t get in. For those accepted to screen at the festival, we estimate that $134.3 million was invested in dramatic features, and $18 million was invested in documentaries.


Distribution Dynamics

'How to Dance in Ohio,' directed by Alexandra Shiva, screens in the US Documentary Competition. Photo courtesy Sundance Institute.

‘How to Dance in Ohio,’ directed by Alexandra Shiva, screens in the US Documentary Competition. Photo courtesy Sundance Institute.

The vast majority of the films Sundance selected this year will get a distribution deal. Last year, 95 films got distribution, a number that has been rising steadily since 2011, which is why I can predict more than 100 will get distribution deals in 2015.

While Sundance Festival programmers make their selections based on their own artistic criteria and judgments, theoretically blind to the movie acquisition marketplace, inclusion in the festival is an initial stamp of approval for acquisitions executives. Financially, however, what does that really mean? In most cases, indie film financiers won’t get their money back. Only a handful of movies will get deals topping $1 million; last year’s highest sales price was a relatively modest $3.5 million. Getting distribution is easier today because of the digital explosion, but along with that has come a price implosion.

'Mistress America,' directed by Noah Baumbach, screens in the Premieres section. It was purchased pre-emptively by Fox Searchlight last week. Photo courtesy Sundance Institute.

‘Mistress America,’ directed by Noah Baumbach, screens in the Premieres section. It was purchased preemptively by Fox Searchlight last week. Photo courtesy Sundance Institute.

Yes, there were 95 Sundance movies that got distribution last year, but that was spread out across more than 50 distribution companies. Some you have heard of — IFC, Magnolia, Drafthouse, A24, Netflix, Lionsgate, Music Box, Roadside Attractions, The Weinstein Company, Sony Pictures Classics, Fox Searchlight, Focus — and these companies will be active again this year. But many of the companies that distributed last year’s Sundance films barely appear on the radar, and most only distribute a few films a year in microscopically modest ways. As it was last year, most of the distribution deals in 2015 will be digital-only, and most will be for extremely low numbers: $25,000, $10,000, and in some cases zero — literally zero dollars, with the promise of financial participation based on sales.

Despite the robust number of films made, and dollars invested in them, being an indie filmmaker clearly is not a career choice. Very few people pay the rent this way, and even filmmakers whose movies are well-received often have to wait years before being able to get their next movie made. For the indie film investor, it is a precipitously risky business proposition, given the small chance of recouping an investment unless you can control marketing and distribution yourself, in effect behaving like a mini-studio.

It Takes a City

Using a figure of 100 film crew working on an average indie production — from writers, to actors, to costumers, to post-production — we calculated that more than 410,000 people worked on all of the films submitted to Sundance this year, a number that rivals the population of Atlanta. At least 45,000 people will attend the festival this year, six times the population of Park City, and, if last year is a guide, the festival will bring more than $86 million in economic impact to the state of Utah.

SEE ANIMATED AND INTERACTIVE SUNDANCE 2015 INFOGRAPHIC (please allow a moment for it to load)

Sundance 2015 Infographic Produced by Entertainment Media Partners for Cultural Weekly. Sponsored by 'Inside Track for Independent Filmmakers,' available now.

Sundance 2015 Infographic Produced by Entertainment Media Partners for Cultural Weekly.
Sponsored by ‘Inside Track for Independent Filmmakers,’ available now.

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Infographic produced by Entertainment Media Partners for Cultural Weekly. Tod Hardin, special features editor; Ahmad Zaeem, designer.