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Will Netflix Allow Indie Films to Survive Outside the Studio System?

“Semi-detached” may be a more apt description for many of today’s so-called “independent” films, which are actually backed by major studios. The same films — as with Juno this year — are contenders for Best Picture in the establishment Oscars, as well as in the indie-cred Independent Spirit Awards.

“But there are some forces afoot… to give us access to artists without the gatekeeper of the studios,” says Peter Guber.

Netflix, under its chief content officer Ted Sarandos, is a prime example. The company that made its name in movie-rental is now also buying and backing independent films, and putting these movies — through it’s online recommendation engines — in front of audiences likely to be receptive.

Netflix’s Sarndos recently acquired the (truly) independent effort No End in Sight, a documentary about the Iraq War, after witnessing a Sundance audience’s reaction.

“I wasn’t that crazy about it. I thought it was a great Frontline episode, but in terms of it being cinematic, I wasn’t sold. Then I saw it with an audience, and I thought, ‘The cinematic experience here isn’t what’s on screen — it’s the audience gasping…”

In order to acquire the film, Netflix agreed to also release it theatrically, partnering with Magnolia Pictures; the movie has since been nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary. Another documentary acquired by Netflix, Born Into Brothels, won the Oscar in 2005 and for a period of months after that was only viewable through Netflix.

“So,” asks Shootout co-host, Peter Bart, “What does this mean for the individual film-maker, who used daddy’s credit card to make a movie and most of the big studios have said ‘forget it’?”

Netflix has an advantage over more traditional distributors with the kind of films Bart describes because it can put these films, which in the off-line world would have difficulty finding audiences, directly in front of receptive viewers ferreted out by its recommendation engines.

“When most films don’t get picked up at a festival, it’s not because they aren’t good,” says Sarndos. “It’s because they are hard to sell…in traditional markets, putting an ad in the newspaper and opening it on a screen without a movie star, without any buzz.

“We have the ability to create a market without those things, by using people’s individual tastes. The website’s real art is its personalization.”

Guber notes that Netflix can also succeed with more specialized films because it’s able to aggregate niche audiences from across the country. “There may be 40 people in Bangor, Maine, that have the same tastes…and 6,000 in New York and 600 in Chicago. Aggregating them all is two or three million people across the country. You couldn’t reach them in a theatrical modality.”

Peter Bart wonders, “So how long will it take for a whole range of independent pictures to be available and out there to be seen, like 40 years ago?”

Variety‘s Deputy Online Editor Anne Thompson indicates the answer to that question is an unknown. “It’s still a transition, and the transition has not reached the next point yet.”

So the question remains. Can independent films survive outside the studio system?

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