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The Deal as Dance

Monday, Jan 30, 2012

Deal-makers talk shop about Sundance

story and photos by Darren Schenck

Although relatively few movie-goers will ever attend the Sundance Film Festival, even the most casual film-fan understands that it plays a significant role in determining what movies will make it to the local Cineplex.

From left, Michael Donaldson, Andrew Ruf and
Harris Tulchin

At a recent event sponsored by USC Law’s Entertainment Law Society, four veterans of the Sundance Film Festival provided students with an anecdote-rich discussion illuminating why Sundance, out of dozens of important film festivals, is so influential – and how deals get closed in Park City, Utah, hotel rooms.

Michael Donaldson, an entertainment attorney who has worked with independent filmmakers for over three decades, serves as general counsel to Film Independent and the Writers Guild Foundation. He advises lawyers and filmmakers who go to Sundance to take their participation seriously.

“Sundance is a high-stakes game,” he said. “It isn’t a place you go just to have fun and see what happens. It’s a really special opportunity.”

Harris Tulchin, an attorney who has served as general counsel for Cinema Group and KCET Television, and as senior counsel for United Artists, executive produced “The Devil’s Double,” which premiered at Sundance last year.

“Sundance really is a very special place,” Tulchin said. “I was fortunate enough to executive produce ‘To Sleep With Anger,’ which made it to Sundance in 1990. It took literally 20 years before I had a second film accepted by the festival.”

Tulchin emphasized the collaborative nature of filmmaking and urged the law and film students going to Sundance this year to make the most of their trip. The festival ran from January 19 – 29.

“There is so much to observe and participate in,” he said.

One of Tulchin’s partners on the film, Andrew Ruf, detailed the preparations needed to make the most of the opportunities available at Sundance. As head of Paradigm Motion Picture Finance Group, Ruf leads the agency’s motion picture financing, packaging and distribution sales department. He negotiated the acquisition and distribution agreement for “The Devil’s Double” at Sundance last year.

Ruf and Tulchin with Caroline Libresco

“I’ve been to 15 Sundances,” Ruf said. “It started out as a hell of a lot fun. Each year, I had increasingly more responsibility. The bottom line is: it’s not just a festival, it’s a market – the largest market we have on the domestic side. Nobody goes into making these films with the thought of losing money.”

Why does Sundance have such cachet among distributors? Caroline Libresco, senior programmer for the festival since 2001, provided part of the answer. As one of seven full-time programmers, Libresco and her team are the “first eyes” on many of the films arriving at the festival. Last year, 3,812 feature films were submitted; 118 were selected.

“We take it really seriously,” Libresco said. “We take care to evaluate films on their own terms. We’re not looking for anything specific. We’re not looking for films that satisfy our tastes. We’re in the habit of discovery.”

Ruf spoke about the art of positioning a film once it reaches Sundance.

“How are you going to center your film with distributors? What’s the story of your film, what are you comparing it to? What time slot and venue are you going to get at the festival? A lot of strategy goes into this,” he said. “What films are you up against? How do you position yourself? What’s the right audience for it? After that’s settled out, we take meetings with every distributor and talk about the films we’re representing.

“That being said, once you get there, everything goes out the window!”

Donaldson agreed with Ruf’s take.

“The takeaway, for me, is follow your gut,” he said. “Anybody who tells you this is the way to do it, just back away – that’s never the case.”

The event ended with questions from the audience, including USC filmmakers who are forming their own legal and PR teams and trying to enter their films into festivals. After Ruf had related a story about closing a deal for a film at three in the morning, one filmmaker asked if the deals might be better negotiated some time after the festival.

Ruf explained that Sundance, where distributors are watching films alongside audiences, cultivates an atmosphere of hope and possibility for well-received films.

“Often a festival acquisition is based as much on emotion as anything else,” Ruf said. “If you don’t close the deal at Sundance, but the time you get back to L.A., the distributors might have lost some interest.”

The panelists’ advice and insights helped to inform USC law and cinema students’ visit to Sundance. For example, according to ELS President Jennifer Westhoff ’13, more students used the festival bus to travel to and from events so they could network and exchange cards.

“I think we experienced the festival differently based on the advice and stories of the panelists,” Westhoff said. “We experienced it with a much more informed eye. It was also really interesting to watch the films with the knowledge of what the filmmakers went through to get the film placed in the festival and how the buying and distribution process would work afterward.”

She said the highlight of the event was the party she and her fellow law students sponsored with the cinema students.

“Getting to network with USC alumni and festival-goers was great, and you realize how far the Trojan network extends,” she said.

From left, ELS board members Dmitrii Gabrielov '13 and
Michael Hartman '13 with Tulchin, Ruf, Donaldson and
ELS President Jennifer Westhoff '13

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