Snow job

DAN ACKMAN writes for the Wall Street Journal and other publications.

WHEN BRIAN Jun's "Steel City" was invited to the Sundance Film Festival this year, it might have seemed that the writer-director had gotten his proverbial big break. After all, isn't Sundance where indie hits such as "Thirteen" and "Hustle & Flow" got their launch?

The reality, though, is decidedly different, and the economics of independent cinema (never good) have grown much worse. Every year, more and more filmmakers apply for admission to Sundance -- along with other festivals, whose numbers have also mushroomed. But the number of films that leave Park City, Utah, with a distribution deal is flat. The media inevitably fusses over the bidding wars that enrich one or two Sundance entrants. As the festival ends, this year's Cinderella is "Little Miss Sunshine," which scored a $10-million deal with Fox Searchlight.

Despite a perceived resurgence of independent film, the odds for someone like Jun, a first-time filmmaker from Alton, Ill., have never been longer.

Sundance's own numbers tell the story. For the 2006 festival, 3,148 feature films applied for a slot. That's up from 2,613 in 2005. In 1998, 1,059 feature filmmakers applied. At the same time, the number of feature films screened has stayed fairly constant over the last five years, at about 120.

The reason there are so many more independent films produced is largely the advent of low-cost digital video technology. In the very low-budget world of independent film, where services are often had on a barter-and-beg basis, the cost of film stock and editing machines forms a big part of the budget. But with digital video and editing programs that can be used on an ordinary PC, those costs can be reduced to a bare minimum. And the picture quality can be just as good as that of a low-budget icon like John Cassavetes' work from the 1960s and '70s. Even some major Hollywood releases are now shooting using digital video.

But the vast majority of movies accepted by Sundance are not typically micro-budget pictures. "Steel City's" producer won't reveal its budget, but reports put it well below what is typical for the feature competition -- price tags between $3 million and $7 million.

So getting in isn't easy, and it's hardly cheap. What about getting out?

In recent years, anywhere from 10 to 30 of the 120 Sundance films have left the festival with a distribution contract, and most of the deals are quite small.

After a brief surge in the late 1990s, since 1999 the number of new films released in theaters in the U.S. has flattened out at about 450 a year. The costs associated with releasing a film (mostly prints and advertising) have continued to climb and can run to many times the production budget.

Thus, buyers are increasingly careful as they sift through the films seeking to become this year's "Napoleon Dynamite" or "Open Water," the rare low-budget independents that crack the top 100 in ticket sales.

It's a free country, of course. And even films that are never sold to a major distributor can be a valuable showcase for their writers and directors. So if Jun wants to tell what the Sundance programmers call "the psychologically rich story of a dysfunctional family of men in a depressed Midwestern steel town," why not have at it?

For filmmakers such as Jun, just getting into Sundance is a prize -- and probably worth the effort. But to the thousands who never arrive in Park City, and even most who do, the Sundance launch never happens. And the festival is peddling a bill of goods every bit as quixotic as the one sold by the dream factories of Tinseltown.

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