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Sundance in Primetime

After three years of operation, the Sundance Channel seems finally to have found its voice and in the process become a haven for risk-taking filmmakers who often don’t have anywhere else to go.

In recent months, the Sundance Channel has spotlighted a diverse group of works from filmmakers like Cheryl Dunye, an African American lesbian who wrote and directed Watermelon Woman, a pseudo-documentary that follows her search for an African American lesbian actress from the 1930’s. While Dunye’s film had a limited arthouse release prior to its cablecast, others, like Allison Burnett’s Red Meat, premiered on the channel. A brutal treatment of the sexual relationships between men and women, the controversial and serious film lacks a star and ends ambiguously, all of which made finding a distributor very difficult. Even Cinque Lee, Spike’s brother, couldn’t get a break distribution-wise with his directorial debut. Nowhere Fast, about a group of aimless New Yorkers, is also an apt description of where Lee’s film was going until the Sundance Channel stepped in and gave it an audience of 14 million homes.

" ‘See it here or don’t see it at all’ is very much the spirit of the Sundance Channel," says Tom Harbeck, Executive Vice President of Programming and Creative Director. "We feel we are truly delivering on the promise of diversity and variety in our programming. Our philosophy is that a good film isn’t about having so-and-so in your movie, it’s about having a great story and doing it well."

Harbeck along with Liz Manne, Senior Vice President, Programming and Creative Marketing, are part of a new leadership team that came on board in early ’98 and are responsible in part for the channel’s new direction in the past year. Manne came to Sundance Channel from Fine Line, where she headed up marketing for eight years, and Harbeck brings his experience as creative director for Nickelodeon. Robert Redford was instrumental in putting the team together in hopes that they could reinvigorate the channel from a distribution and marketing standpoint, as well as a programming one.

"When we came on board, the Sundance Channel was somewhat remote," says Harbeck. "We wanted to give it a personality and a point of view and to give the films some type of overall context. To do that, we began to look for cutting-edge films and instead of running them cold we now surround them with interviews or information we’ve dug up about the filmmakers or the actors involved."

In November, the channel premiered four new, weekly primetime slots designed to showcase the gamut of independent filmmaking. Fridays at 9:00 p.m. brings Something New, which features the TV, world, or U.S. premiere of a film. This programming block includes international cinema, including that from emerging film industries in Iran, Vietnam, and Latin America. "Something New is really exciting for all of us," says Harbeck. "It’s a place for films like Red Meat, which may have generated some buzz at festivals but was never released, or was released for a short time but didn’t receive much attention or exposure."

Saturday Night Special, airing on Saturdays at 9:00 p.m., is a place for what Manne refers to as films that the Sundance Channel team loves or deem important statements in independent filmmaking. "These are films that are old, new, borrowed, and blue and span the range from American classic to foreign film," she says. "Or [the series] might include a documentary or a new American film. Films that our staff may have a personal passion for."

The weekly destination for shorts is called Shorts Stop and airs on Sundays at 8:00 p.m. "We already show more shorts than any other network on television," says Harbeck. "It’s part of our heritage and mission. So many people don’t get to see them outside of film festivals, and we want to give them a home."

Matter of Fact on Mondays at 9:00 p.m. features documentaries. "I have a deep personal passion for documentaries," says Manne, who worked on Hoop Dreams while at Fine Line.

Manne says the Sundance Channel will be looking for completed personal films or docs. "We are still a start-up channel and our agenda doesn’t include financing nonfiction films. The cost of original programming is still beyond our scope right now," says Harbeck. "But the amount of money we have for acquisitions allows us to pick and choose from the 1,000 independent feature films being made each year, in America alone.

The Sundance Channel utilizes an acquisition team of executives from Showtime Networks Inc., one of the venture partners in the Sundance Channel along with Redford and Polygram Filmed Entertainment. In addition to Harbeck and Manne, the core acquisitions team is made up of Matthew Duda, Executive V.P., Program Acquisition and Planning for Showtime Networks Inc.; Gary Garfinkel, Vice President of Acquisitions; Larry Greenberg, Supervisor of Acquisitions for Showtime and Sundance Channel; and Michael Horowitz, director of acquisitions for Showtime. Geoff Gilmore, Director of the Sundance Film Festival and Special Events, is also part of the team; although he acts in the capacity of programming consultant. Says Manne of the team, "We track things, we attend all the major film festivals, we go to screenings, we view our submissions [see box], and we have vigorous debates, but the buck falls here with Tom [Harbeck]."

Relation to the festival

The Sundance Channel shares the same mission as the Sundance Film Festival, but the channel operates completely independently of it and the Sundance Institute.

"If we see a film at Sundance that we want, we compete like everyone else," says Harbeck. "We certainly don’t limit our choices to only those films included in the festival. It’s not fair to say to a filmmaker, you have to get into the festival before we’ll consider your film."

In fact, many of the films running on the Sundance Channel were rejected by the festival. "The festival needs a consensus, so sometimes movies that are really dark or controversial might displease or horrify certain members of the festival," says Burnett, whose Red Meat was rejected by the festival. "Whereas In the Company of Men shows a beautiful deaf woman who is truly the victim of male treachery, women in my film are active participants in their own abuse. That can be very painful to watch and very offensive to many women."

Red Meat was screened at the Writers Guild in L.A. in September 1996, resulting in several distributors coming forward. "Their offers were totally exploitative, maybe a release in one or two cities. And we heard over and over, ‘How do we market it?’" says Burnett. "What I found out is that it’s more difficult to sell a good, serious, independent film than it is to create one. In fact it’s brutal. There’s so much luck and art involved in selling it." Fortunately, Burnett had some luck. Greenberg was in the audience at the WGA screening and loved the film.

"The Sundance Channel is much more willing to take risks, and it doesn’t require such a widespread consensus," says Burnett. "Liz Manne is absolutely fearless and not lily-livered. She’s not frightened of controversy or taking a chance."

The channel took a chance with at least one film that had already been a political hot potato in the halls of Congress. After winning the Teddy Award at the Berlin Film Festival, Watermelon Woman was mired in controversy sparked by an article in the conservative Washington Times about the film and its $31,500 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Jesse Helms described the film (sight unseen) as "flotsam floating in the sewer." During hearings over NEA appropriations, Michigan Republican Congressman Peter Hoekstra called for an amendment decreasing the NEA’s budget by $31,500.

Ultimately First Run Features did a limited theatrical release of the film in 1997, and later made the deal with the Sundance Channel, which aired Watermelon Woman last August as part of a "Representing Soul" festival featuring the works of 13 African Americans.

The channel has also run a Chinese Indie Film Festival and in general makes abundant use of programmatic themes. It has featured a "Parker Poses" series (films with indie actress Parker Posey); a line-up of dysfunctional family films on Thanksgiving Day; gay-themed films on World Aids Day; and shorts on the shortest day of the year. "The themes, trends, and packaging decisions emerge out of the choosing, not the other way around," says Manne.

Interstitial programming has also become a bigger part of the channel’s identity. The channel has produced short segments on "Actors Behind the Camera" and collaborated with GLAAD on four editorials on the History of Gay Cinema that aired during Gay Pride Month. A weekly foray into current independent film news — what’s in release, what’s not, as well as filmmaker profiles — premiered this fall, produced by Adam Pincus.

Subscriber growth

Fueling these programming efforts are gains the channel has made in cable subscribers. In a few short years, the Sundance Channel has almost caught up with the Independent Film Channel (IFC), which reaches 15 million homes. Among the major markets, the Sundance Channel is now in Los Angeles, Boston, Marin County (north of San Francisco), Houston, and New York. Redford was instrumental in the deal with Time Warner Cable in Manhattan, where the Sundance Channel is available every Sunday for a monthly or yearly subscription.

"Our carriage limitations in the past — not being on-air in New York and L.A. — really affected our ability to expand and do more," says Harbeck. "But now we’ve got those markets; we’re in the face of so many members of the creative community, and we’ll continue to expand what we do."

For the independent world, what singles out the Sundance Channel is its support for films that the rest of the movie world had pronounced unmarketable. "Independent film distributors are becoming the minor league of the Hollywood studio system, and that’s unfortunate," says Burnett. "So many independent films are trendy, lighthearted, derivative, and ingratiating because the distributors need The Full Monty or a Brothers McMullen to make everyone smile. For those serious and truly artistic filmmakers aiming to have a profound effect, they’re going to need a home — and it’s going to be cable venues like Sundance Channel and HBO," continues Burnett, whose screenplay about racism, Bleeding Hearts, was turned into a film directed by Gregory Hines that premiered on Cinemax this fall. "The Sundance Channel gave clear and unambivalent support to Red Meat all the way through," he says. "The executives even helped me find a distributor for its theatrical release." He concludes, "The Sundance Channel is the wave of the future."

Cheryl Dunye concurs: "As an independent filmmaker, to know that the Sundance Channel exists makes me hopeful."

WHO TO CALL

Larry Greenberg can be reached at Larry.Greenberg@showtime.net or by fax at
(310) 234-5396.

The Sundance Channel office is within the Showtime offices at 10880 Wilshire Blvd, Ste 1600, L.A., CA 90024.

All submissions to the Sundance Channel should be made to Larry Greenberg in Los Angeles. Someone from the acquisitions team will respond individually to all feature and documentary submissions, according to Liz Manne, but not shorts, because of the "daunting" volume. "It also really helps if the short has gotten into a film festival," she says. "While that isn’t a prerequisite for features, there are so many shorts that come in, some culling helps." She urges filmmakers to make sure all of their clearances are done legally and to have a digital Beta master. While Harbeck didn’t want to discuss how much the Sundance Channel pays per minute, Burnett’s comment was "they pay okay."

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