The Best-Kept Secrets in the Movies

We used to say that there is a film festival happening somewhere in the world every day,” said Eugene Hernandez, editor in chief of indieWIRE, a Web site devoted to independent film. “Well, now there are two or three.”

Indeed, there are so many festivals—Variety puts the number at 700—that in April 2006 a film contest cropped up to honor the year’s best films that had not found a distributor at one of the many others: the “indieWIRE: Undiscovered Gems” series.

Taking 10 from indieWIRE’s annual list of the top 15 undistributed films, the publication, in conjunction with Emerging Pictures and The New York Times, distributes each one in theaters around the country for one month. At screenings, audiences are given ballots on which they rate the film on a 1-to-10 scale. At the end of the year, the ballots are tallied and the film with the highest average is awarded a nationwide theatrical release through Emerging Pictures valued at $50,000, as well as a $50,000 licensing fee from the Sundance Channel.

“It is harder now for the purely independent films—the ones that don’t have any stars in them—to get out there because there are fewer outlets that are invested in distributing those films,” said Mr. Hernandez. He noted that while this year’s Sundance Film Festival is considered by many to have been one of the best in history in terms of how many films were picked up, a closer look reveals another reality: More films than ever did not secure a distributor.

In December, the “Gems” series announced its first winner: Four Eyed Monsters. The film, directed by Susan Buice and Arin Crumley, had “done extremely well at all the festivals” and had been nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards, but at the end of the day “it still stars two kids you don’t recognize,” said Mr. Hernandez. “These used to be the kinds of films that succeeded at Sundance,” he said, citing Kevin Smith’s Clerks as an example.

“There are so many films out there now, it’s really hard to get people to come see,” said film producer Terry Leonard. Of 11 films he’s produced, five have landed wide-release distribution deals. “There are places in L.A. and New York that you can get to show your film, but if you don’t have a nice advertising budget it’s hard to get the word out.”

Mr. Leonard, whose film Hounddog premiered at Sundance this year, said the grand prize at the major festivals is not winning the audience award but finding the best distribution deal. He cautioned that a $50,000 distribution fund wasn’t likely to bring out the masses. “But every little bit helps,” he said.

“A lot of these smaller distributors don’t know how to advertise a film to get it seen,” he said. “And after two weeks if it hasn’t made a dent at the box office, they’ll drop you.”

This year’s “Gem” series began last month with the film Choking Man, which received the dubious distinction of winning Filmmaker magazine’s award for “best film not playing at a theater near you” in 2006.

“It’s always tough for a filmmaker to make a decision in terms of how a film is going to get seen,” said Choking Man producer Zachary Mortensen, explaining his decision to participate in the “Gems” series. “This is not the traditional venue, but it does open us up to 20 or so new markets, in 20 or so cities.”

“The cost of advertising is so astronomical, if you don’t have that double-truck spread in The New York Times, how do people hear about your movie?” said Mr. Mortensen. (The Times, for its part, donates one quarter-page ad for each new film playing in the “Gems” series.)

As Ira Deutchman, co-founder and C.E.O. of Emerging Pictures, put it: “In an environment that’s completely hostile to smaller independent films getting released, anything we can do to get these films exposure is worthwhile, and that’s pretty much it.”

The Best-Kept Secrets in the Movies