- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2001

LOS ANGELES — In 1996, Robert Redford bet that movie buffs were eager for more independent fare on television and put his golden trademark on the line with the Sundance Channel.
"There are audiences starved out there for new product and more diversity and more to choose from," Mr. Redford said then. "Obviously, if Im wrong, Ill be wrong in a big way."
Five years later, the channel is celebrating an anniversary and a growth spurt that has brought it to the 10-million mark in subscribers. The cachet of the Sundance name secured by the Sundance Film Festival — and changes in technology and the film industry helped power its growth.
Last year, the channel saw a 70 percent increase in subscribers, according to industry analyst Paul Kagan Associates.
The upgrading of cable systems to digital transmission has increased transmission capacity and allowed operators to offer more channels, benefiting newcomers such as Sundance.
Meanwhile, the theatrical marketplace has begun to favor fewer and more profitable (read: mainstream) independent films, creating a void for die-hard indie film fans.
That, in turn, has meant an opportunity for fledgling Sundance. Executive Liz Manne said the channel has capitalized on it by virtue of its dedication to innovative filmmaking.
"Sometimes I look at our program guide when its just been printed up and I go, 'Wow, thats a pretty amazing collection of films," Miss Manne says
The Sundance lineup ranges from movies that enjoyed successful theatrical runs, such as "Being John Malkovich," to "orphan" films going begging for distribution to documentaries and shorts.
There are film festivals, including the fourth annual "Out Loud" showcase for homosexual-themed movies, which begins June 1 and includes 2000s acclaimed "Chuck & Buck" from Miguel Arteta on June 22.
Sundance mostly has proved a complement to the more established Independent Film Channel (IFC), which shows new films but also draws on its extensive library to emphasize classic and foreign movies.
Yet Sundance and IFC, which had an estimated 17 million subscribers last year, do tread on the same turf.
A Sundance partnership with a company that is creating DVD editions of works by Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini and others is raising the channels classic-film quotient.
The 13-week series featuring films from the collection begins June 7 with "LAvventura" (1960) from Michelangelo Antonioni.
Both Sundance and IFC have placed increasing emphasis on creating programs that illuminate the filmmaking world, such as IFCs new series "IFILMIFC," a weekly half-hour show that airs at 8 p.m. Mondays and focuses on independent films in theaters and on the Internet.
Sundances "Conversations in World Cinema," which has profiled directors such as Jane Campion and Ang Lee, shifts from a monthly to a weekly series June 7. Host Richard Pena opens the fourth season with Milos Forman.
June also marks the debut of "Anatomy of a Scene," a monthly Sundance series that examines the creation of a new feature film from the point of view of the director, cinematographer and other key contributors.
The 7:30 p.m. Sunday series opens with actors Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alan Cumming and others discussing a scene from the dark comedy "The Anniversary Party."
Sundance Channel is owned and operated independently of the Sundance Institute and festival founded by Mr. Redford. The actor-director remains involved "creatively and strategically" with the channel, Miss Manne says.
Miss Manne, who co-founded indie film distributor Fine Line Pictures in 1990 and left three years ago to become the channels executive vice president for programming and marketing, says her switch to television was driven by emotion.
In recent years, as the market recognized that small films had moneymaking potential, she says, big studios swallowed up independent film companies and the distribution balance shifted toward movies with mass appeal.
"For me as a film lover, it became too often a place of heartbreak and great films being left out in the cold. What I found in the television environment is that it is a very democratic medium," Miss Manne says.
For a relatively small sum — Sundance Channel generally is offered to cable customers as part of a "premium channel" package and also is part of satellite packages — viewers can sample films that might go begging in theaters.
The channel shows about 500 titles a year.


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