Director Robert Rodriguez came to the Sundance Film Festival in 1992 with his $7,000 movie "El Mariachi," walked away with the Audience Award and entered Hollywood, where he became a big-time moviemaker.
These days the films that screen here at the top U.S. gathering for independent movies cost anywhere from several hundred thousand dollars to $10 million or more to make and often twice that amount to market.
But social networking Web sites like MySpace.com and digital download services such as Apple's iTunes, Netflix and others are offering filmmakers new ways to raise funds and reach audiences, bypassing Hollywood altogether, experts said.
For their 2008 festival, Sundance organizers joined with cable TV's Sundance Channel to offer 45 of the festival's short films through iTunes Movie Store, Netflix and Microsoft's Xbox 360 for $1.99.
"We thought, here's a chance for filmmakers to make money," said John Cooper, director of festival programming at Sundance. "You have to remember that Hollywood is slow to change. They act progressive, but are not. They are busy protecting systems that make money for them."
Three years ago at Sundance, MySpace launched a specialized "film profile" tailored to the needs of filmmakers.
Josh Brooks, vice president of marketing and content at MySpace, said filmmakers like Ari Sandel with his Oscar-winning short film, "West Bank Story," are utilizing MySpace to market their films to network "friends."
"Ari put a film profile up on MySpace, we saw it, were impressed, and promoted him as a featured filmmaker," Brooks said, "and this time last year he got an Academy Award."
Friend to friend
With over 70 million active users monthly in the United States and 110 million worldwide, according to Comscore, MySpace offers a huge market for word-of-mouth publicity.
Mike Volpi, chief executive officer of video site Joost.com, said there is nothing better than recommendations from one user to another to gain exposure and an audience.
"Social networking is probably the most powerful way of delivering video in a way that the consumer will actually pay attention to it," Volpi said.
For filmmakers who haven't even made it past that first step to making a movie — raising money, Indiegogo.com launched only one week before Sundance 2008, betting general consumers will be interested in contributing to independent film.
The Web site offers a "social marketplace" where filmmakers get the tools for fundraising and promotion while fans can connect directly with filmmakers or causes they believe in.
Co-founder Slava Rubin says they were inspired by the makers of "Iraq for Sale," a 2006 documentary that screened at Sundance, who raised the last $200,000 of their $750,000 budget by e-mailing donation requests to fans of their prior films.
Rubin and his partners thought they could take the same idea and apply it to independent filmmakers in general.
"We're all about filmocracy. We want more independent film to be made and more fans to have the films made that they want to see," he said.
When it comes to embracing the Internet, Cooper said Hollywood's studios are "having a knee jerk reaction to protect their brick and mortar" business. "We are all foolish if we try to protect things. Let's just get on with it," he said.