Indie Cinema Forces: Organizational Networks and Support

The independent cinema is a grass-roots movement supported by an extensive network of organizations. While limited funding remains a pervasive problem, guerrilla filmmakers on both coasts draw on the Independent Feature Project (IFP and IFP/West), the Association of Video and Filmmakers (AVF), the Black Filmmakers Foundation, several nonprofit media centers and indie-friendly labs and vendors.

“A number of institutions are terribly helpful to the independent director,” noted Metropolitan helmer Whit Stillman: “Sundance is one; the Independent Feature Project is another. And there are now a lot of festivals that have taken a special interest in supporting these films, various sections of Cannes, the New Directors series in New York, the San Francisco and Seattle film festivals. These have given a way for independent films to reach their audience.”

IFP

The Independent Feature Project (IFP) has been acclaimed as the launching pad for a bevy of indie hits as well as catching and lending support to those falling through the cracks. At first, it served as a clearing house for filmmakers of personal films like Northern Lights and Heartland. One of IFP’s purposes is to allow those already within the industry who have been overlooked to “take their shot.” Over the years, IFP has evolved from a quickly-organized sidebar of the New York Film Festival to its present status as a large confab boasting not only screening of pictures for sale, but panels and workshops.

IFP is now the country’s largest association of independent filmmakers, growing from 600 to 3,500 members within a decade. Its budget has increased from half a million to $2 million, and corporate funding from $150,000 to $1.3 million. IFP’s annual Gotham Awards attract the support of such sponsors as Bravo, CAA, Fox Searchlight, Miramax and Absolut.

IFFM

Correspondingly, the number of submissions to the annual Independent Feature Film Market (IFFM) has also risen from 390 in 1990 to 600 in 1997. The IFFM has adjusted to filmmakers’ needs, offering more works-in-progress and creating better opportunities for agents, executives, and buyers to interface with new filmmakers. Over the years, the market launched the premiere of such indies as Linklater’s Slacker, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Ed Burns’ The Brothers McMullen, all of which later achieved a measure of commercial success.

“People used to join just to come to the IFFM,” said former chief Catherine Tait, “That was the only benefit.” But with yearlong programming and the development of new services, the turnover has been cut from 75 to 40 percent. IFP expanded its resource program and members now have access to free consultations with established producers, distributors, and lawyers. IFP’s training sessions in financing, writing, and marketing help members improve their skills and gain understanding of the business.

In 1997, former Deputy Director Michelle Byrd assumed IFP’s leadership, taking over an organization which has grown from a “collective” with a small staff to an non-profit association with a $2 million budget and 14 employees. Coincident with the burgeoning interest in “independent” film as a brand name in the commercial marketplace, IFP’s expansion owes to the high-profile success of the IFFM, its most vital program, as well as prodigious fund-raising from corporate sponsorship.

The IFP wasn’t founded on any business principle; it was a project born with a post-1960s spirit: “Let’s all get together and have a voice.” The initial mandate was to educate the industry about filmmaking outside Hollywood. The idea was to be a band-aid of sorts to a specific situation and then dissolve when the problem was over. But IFP is not a project anymore, it’s a full-fledged organization whose founding goals have been achieved–indies are no longer going to be passed over. Clearly, Hollywood wants to get near independents as evidenced by Sundance, but IFP continues to make concerted efforts to get indies to other festivals and the marketplace. Established filmmakers, despite critical recognition, still struggle to secure funding–it takes Victor Nunez and Charles Burnett years to get projects off the ground.

There is no discernible aesthetics or philosophy at work: As an institution, IFP supports all shapes and sizes of creation. For the 1997 Berlin Festival program, it was important to send a cross-section of films like the more commercial Puddle Cruiser and the gay-themed The Delta. Both are independently made and both filmmakers are struggling to be heard, but they have different points of view and different target audiences. These films are the extremes, and it’s important for IFP to represent those extremes.

Nor is IFP solely concerned with commercial success–it’s more about discovering talent. Ed Burns was around a long time before The Brothers McMullen, an IFP discovery, became a commercial success. Kevin Smith has been extremely supportive of the organization, grateful that it helped him transform from a “nobody” (as he said) to having a career.

There has been talk of the IFP branches forming a national organization, which is a good idea. From an audience-building standpoint, the opportunity is there and the timing is right for an effort to work together, instead of representing the filmmakers regionally. Nationwide, the five separate organizations have a membership of 8,000, a powerful tool that hasn’t been fully used.

IFP/West, which accounts for 4,500 of the national membership, is the largest branch. It presents the annual Independent Spirit Awards during the Oscar weekend. What better indicator of the institutionalization of indies than sponsoring their own “Oscars.” The Spirit Awards have mirrored the history of indie filmmaking, growing from a small get-together at a West Hollywood restaurant to a large seaside blowout, televised on Bravo and attended by Hollywood’s elite. Many in the creative community now commute regularly between Hollywood and indie films.

Other Associations

The Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF), which moved in 1997 to a more spacious location with a screening room, recently received a $100,000 NEA challenge grant. Headed by executive director Ruby Lerner, AIVF is in more stable shape than other nonprofit units. But what’s frustrating is the termination of NEA’s small grants program–numerous careers were founded on those $3,000 to $5,000 grants.

Non-fiction films are aided by the International Documentary Association, a non-profit organization established in 1982 to promote nonfiction film and video and to support the efforts of documentary filmmakers around the world. The association publishes its own magazine, “International Documentary,” and has its own annual awards.

Premium cable channels, such as Bravo, the Independent Film Channel, and Sundance specialize in airing indie fare. Bravo, the first channel to promote art fare, is the largest, reaching 22 million subscribers on 550 cable systems.

The Independent Film Channel (IFC), which launched in 1994, has quickly emerged as a major force, its growing indie library fed by deals with Miramax, Sony Classics, Orion Classics, Goldwyn and Fine Line. By 1995, the 24-hour channel, owned by Calbevision Systems Corp. and NBC, distributed by Bravo, was available in 2 million homes. Three years later, its reach has doubled. IFC has parlayed its growing subscriber base to a more aggressive title expansion through deals with a wide array of distributors.

IFC and Sundance Channels

Though dedicated to independent films and their creators, IFC programming includes retrospectives of foreign directors like Kurosawa and Truffaut, and it also provides live coverage of film festivals such as Cannes and Sundance and its own original shows. Because the network is not looking for first windows or for exclusivity on titles, the average price hovers between $15,000 and $20,000 a picture. At that rate, IFC can buy about 200 movies for less than the price paid by premium networks like HBO or Showtime.

After enjoying a virtual two-year monopoly on independent film broadcasting, however, IFC is now competing for viewers with the Sundance Channel, which launched in February 1996 in select cities and is spreading quickly. The Sundance Channel is a cable and satellite pay channel, which gives platform to films that have not found a release.

In 1998, the Sundance Group, the commercial spinoff of the nonprofit Sundance Institute, entered the exhibition business by partnering with the General Cinema. Operating a cable channel in partnership with Viacom and PolyGram, the Sundance Channel wants to leverage the brand awareness created by the Sundance Festival by establishing what some call the “Starbucks of indie film exhibition.” The first Sundance Cinema, a joint venture of Redford and General Cinemas, is in Portland, Oregon, but there are plans to build sites in other cities, which will increase the exposure of indie fare.