Bucks, capacity and the Sundance Kid

Independent-movie network gives distribution talks the celebrity treatment

When the big carriage deals bog down, Sundance brings out the velvet ropes. That is, its celebrity power.

According to Tom Christie, executive vice president of sales and affiliate marketing for Sundance Channel, it's not unusual for Robert Redford, founder of the channel, to show up at sticky distribution negotiations to help move things along.

It's not a bad ploy. Cable operators seldom get to see the Hollywood, glam side of the business apart from booth entertainment at a convention. "People start lining up in the halls," Christie says of Redford's appeal.

Sundance Channel was four years old in February, a joint venture of Redford, Viacom's Showtime Networks and Universal Studios. Even with the persuasive power of The Horse Whisperer, however, getting carriage hasn't come easily. The premium service has about 8 million subscribers, many of them DBS. Scoff if you will about satellite, but it saved Sundance Channel's bacon in the lean years.

"Three or four years ago, we were relegated to digital. It was very depressing" because there were no digital subscribers, said Larry Aidem, president and CEO of Sundance. Now, at least, with digital cable growing at a healthy clip of tens of thousands of subscribers per month, Sundance has a chance to grow.

The channel offers a "few dollars a sub" in launch support fees, with a tiered rate card of 35 cents to 50 cents, depending on the distribution package, according to an MSO source. Aidem and Christie sell the channel any way they can: in the nine-channel Showtime-plex package, a $10 addition on most systems; àla carte for $5 or $6; or, in the case of Time Warner Cable of New York, as a sort of pay-per-view subscription hybrid.

Time Warner offers "Sundance Sundays" in New York. For $4.95, people can get Sundance for every Sunday in a month. A year of Sundays costs $29.95; one Sunday is $1.95. That was the only way to get on the system, Aidem said. It wasn't great, but it got "thousands" of people to subscribe, enough to persuade Time Warner to put the channel on the developing digital service. Sundance Sundays will disappear as digital becomes available, according to Aidem.

As for pursuing analog, he believes there is no future on it. "Delusional we're not," Aidem asserted.

Sundance fare is the stuff of film festivals and art houses like the Film Forum in New York or the Magic Theater, a 50-seater in Nevada City, Calif. With the exception of aficionados, films like The Spanish Prisoner, Live Flesh and Breaking the Waves generally elicit a response about sounding vaguely familiar. These are no Titanics, blockbusters that run in heavy rotation on cable and broadcast networks.

Also, Sundance as a brand is relevant only to people who have some knowledge of the festival, which has taken on the aura of a big Hollywood schmooze-fest in a ski resort, according to one filmmaker familiar with the fête. Neither is Sundance Channel like Animal Planet, where it's pretty clear you're going to get alligator wrestling and python wranglers. Hence, Sundance has to prove itself before it even gets a hearing from MSOs.

It's also up against the Independent Film Channel-a Rainbow Media and, by extension, Cablevision network started a couple years before Sundance. Not surprisingly, Sundance is not carried on Cablevision systems.

While both channels claim to be mutually exclusive, and indeed their content does not overlap, cable operators lump them into the same category. Observed an AT & T spokeswoman, "IFC is on the three-pack, and Sundance is on transponder 8. What does that tell you?" What it says is IFC is the indie service of choice for AT & T's most widely distributed digital tier, while Sundance is relegated to the digital boonies.

Such obstacles don't deter Aidem, who keeps an insanely grinning voice-activated, miniature plastic replica of himself on his desk. Toss out an idea, and Aidem may resort to his obsequious plastic alter ego: "Say, that's a great idea!" "I agree with that absolutely."

Aidem was put in charge of Sundance in 1998, the year it became profitable. He has the support of Showtime's 200-strong affiliate sales force pushing the channel in the package. He has Viacom behind him but not meddling in his daily affairs. And he has a wide-open market for content among the thousands of indie films that never make it to theaters, and those films may run him anywhere from $15,000 to $100,000 to license for up to 24 months.

In comparison, HBO pays $750,000 for a "busted theatrical," or a film that didn't get a theatrical release but has a big name.

"They are unique in that they have a premiere deal," said Joseph Infantolino, producer of Charming Billy, an indie film in need of a distributor. In a premiere license deal, Sundance gives the movie a prime time slot and marketing support, such as mass-transit or trade-magazine ads. IFC has no such option, he added.