By Andrew S. Vargas | SydneysBuzz May 12, 2014 at 8:00AM
It's already well beyond cliche to say that American independent film is in crisis. The alarms have been sounding for nearly a decade as new technologies, changes in viewing habits and shifts in the global financial structure have rendered the old theatrical release/home video model paleolithic. In its place? Who knows. Little by little, new platforms a la Netflix and Amazon Prime have been popping up presenting filmmakers, producers, and distribution companies with new outlets for experimentation but no one has quite figured out how to make independent filmmaking viable for the 21st century.
Latino film is no exception. In fact, the whole idea of a 'Latino market' only started to matter to the big money movers-and-shakers when the old model was sinking like the Titanic into the frigid waters of the North Atlantic. Over the years, many a brave company has tried to take on the challenge of articulating a Latino film audience in the U.S. only to be crushed by the invisible hand of the global marketplace, leaving many a worthy film orphaned in the process.
Alex Rivera's Sleep Dealer was one of those films. A haunting vision of a dystopian near-future on the US-Mexico border, Sleep Dealer was the toast of Sundance back in 2008, picking up two important awards, a glowing review by the New York Times' A.O. Scott, and a coveted distribution deal with upstart Latino distribution company Maya Entertainment. All seemed to be going well until 2011 when, virtually without warning, Maya went under. Concerned for the future of their film, Rivera and producer Anthony Bregman found themselves faced with a difficult decision: let their film be absorbed by the unknown distribution company that was picking up Maya's catalogue, or set forth on their own into the uncharted waters of 21st century film distribution.
Helped along by a very prudently negotiated opt-out clause in his distribution contract, Rivera chose to make lemons out of lemonade. He explains, "When Maya went under it provided us an opportunity to say, 'the landscape's shifted, years have gone by, there are new companies and new technologies.' At that moment we were thinking: what's the best new partnership?"
While ostensibly more risky, it seems this adventurous attitude inadvertently helped Rivera and Bregman dodge a bullet. Max 360 Entertainment - the company that absorbed Maya's catalogue - was sued a couple of years later for failing distribute and promote several Maya films as promised, along with some allegedly shady accounting practices.
Be that as it may, Sleep Dealer was an orphaned film adrift in an unforgiving marketplace - that is, until a fortuitous post on Rivera's Facebook wall led to the folks from Sundance contacting Rivera with a new proposal. The initiative, called Sundance Artist Services, proposed a new, artist-friendly model that takes advantage of the numerous new digital platforms available to guarantee a baseline of visibility for films that have passed through the festival.
According to Rivera, the initiative "presents an interesting path for filmmakers because it lets you get the revenue and the contact with your audience almost as if you were self-distributing, but you're getting the institutional support and the brand name of a film society that already has an audience... and can negotiate a deal collectively."
After a year of negotiations, Sleep Dealer's re-release is a go, and for Rivera this second chance is less about profit than reconnecting with fans, discovering new ones and giving the film the long life it deserves. A fundraising campaign recently launched at Rally.org seeks help with ancillary costs related to the re-release, including new poster design, subtitling, and more boring expenses such as insurance. "In short," Rivera summed up, "we're trying to work with the existing family of fans to build a 'force field' or a Matrix of support and love around this film to help it live it's life in peace, on-line, and continue reaching new audiences."
In the end, the story of Sleep Dealer is both a cautionary tale for filmmakers trying to crack the code of a persistently fickle U.S. Latino audience in the midst of an institutional crisis and an inspirational narrative about second chances in which trailblazers like the Sundance Artist Services continue to fight for the future of independent film.
Show your support for the Sleep Dealer re-release by donating: rally.org/sleep-dealer