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The Future is Here: IFP's Independent Film Week

By Kathy Brew

Independent Feature Project's (IFP) 32nd Independent Film Week took place September 19 to 23 in New York City. The annual event (formerly known as the IFP Market) focuses on celebrating, advocating and introducing new voices on the independent scene. While the landscape of independent film has radically changed over the three decades of its existence, IFP continues to evolve and respond to the shifting tides.


Left to right: IFP Senior Programmer Milton Tabbot, IFP Executive Director Joana Vicente, and HBO’s Nancy Abraham at the HBO Documentary Films Reception. Photo: Ingrid Kopp. Courtesy of IFP

Independent Film Week offers many ways for the independent film community to come together. This includes facilitating over 2,000 industry meetings for both established and emerging makers with new projects at the Project Forum, helping filmmakers build audiences through showcase screenings, and offering the independent community the opportunity to discuss the future of film at the Filmmaker Conference.

The Project Forum is the centerpiece of Independent Film Week, where filmmakers present their projects in varying phases, from development through post-production, to key people in industry--producers, financiers and distributors--who can help them realize the full potential of their projects. Projects are accepted into one of three sections: Emerging Narrative, No Borders International Co-Production Market, and Spotlight on Documentaries. Fifty percent of the accepted projects in the Project Forum are documentaries. 

I spoke with both filmmakers and those from industry about their experiences, and everyone seemed to have very favorable reviews. From the filmmakers' side...Leslie Gladsjo is still at an early stage with her doc, Sayonara, Daddy-san, a personal film about the children left behind by America's military occupations. She went into the week with pretty low expectations, but found it to be a very positive experience. "This was my first chance to present my project to industry people and other filmmakers, so it was exciting to discover that some viewers already 'get' what I am trying to do," she observes. "Nobody wrote me any checks on the spot, but I met some amazing people and got a lot of great advice and encouragement that will help me to move forward. It was inspiring to see other people's projects as well, and to run into some people I hadn't seen in years!" 

Mike Plunkett's project, Charge, about the competition for access to Bolivia's substantial lithium reserves, drummed up significant interest among many industry reps; in the course of the week, he had about 22 meetings. Even though Charge is still in production and months away from a rough cut, most of the foreign distributors expressed interest in pre-sales, and several put forth specific numbers. Plunkett is currently following up on these potential offers, and also commented on the benefit of meeting many talented and like-minded filmmakers at the events, who "I definitely plan to keep in touch with. This was my first time at Film Week, and it was the most inspiring and productive networking experience I've ever had."

Melissa Haizlip's production, Mr. SOUL: Ellis Haizlip and the Birth of Black Power TV, came into the week with six scheduled meetings, but by the end of the week, she had taken 25 meetings. The experience allowed her to "make great inroads and gain entrée to a very desirable echelon of possibility and deal-making, enabling us to get a foothold in the early marketing of the film by creating a presence and market validation." She says she's "in over her ears with follow-up," and through her micro-cinema screening she was able to connect with a key editor and filmmaker who have expressed interest in working with her on the project. She also mentioned having good meetings with industry reps from POV and Women Make Movies.

From the industry side, Women Make Movies' executive director, Debbie Zimmerman, attended the week from several different perspectives. Her organization is serving as fiscal sponsor for six projects that were at the market. "It's such a fantastic way for filmmakers to become visible," she notes. "Face-to-face meetings are incredibly important as a way of moving a project forward."  Women Make Movies also had meetings with representatives from 20 new projects, and Zimmerman felt the projects were very strong this year. Diana Holtzberg from Films Transit had meetings with about 17 projects and also felt it was a very strong year. It's likely she'll come on board with one of the films in the next couple of weeks, and she said she's interested in three others. Holtzberg noted how she's found other projects at past Independent Film Weeks--The Most Dangerous Man in America, Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's doc about Daniel Ellsberg, and also Jeff Stimmel's The Art of Failure, about artist Chuck Connelly. In the latter case, she saw a five-minute trailer by a first-time filmmaker, loved the story, and got on board, working with Stimmel for four years on the project. What many people don't realize is that these things can take some time. The fact is, for many filmmakers, Independent Film Week is the first opportunity to meet with people from industry. 

This year there was also a new component to the IFP Independent Filmmaker Labs, which introduce and support "under-the-radar" new talents--providing them with the access, mentorship and tools necessary to ensure that their unique stories reach audiences. The Labs is the only year-long program in the country that supports filmmakers in post-production throughout completion, marketing and distribution of their films. By incorporating filmmakers from the IFP Independent Filmmaker Labs into the Forum, filmmakers have the additional opportunity to initiate relationships with industry, as well as participate in working sessions with top marketing professionals to identify audiences and devise Web, print and grassroots campaigns for their projects. There were ten documentary lab projects and ten narrative lab projects. Jon Reiss, filmmaker and author of Think Outside the Box Office: The Ultimate Guide to Film Distribution and Marketing for the Digital Era, helped spearhead the new distribution component of the Lab, along with independent filmmaker Ted Hope, co-founder of This Is That and Good Machine. According to Reiss, one of the Labs' mentors, "The idea is to get makers to think about engaging with their core audiences, connecting with organizations that are important, doing basic outreach. No other film lab seems to be doing this. The focus is on completion, marketing and distribution; what's new this year is the marketing focus." In fact, Reiss thinks it's a good idea for any project to have a Producer of Marketing and Distribution (PMD)--someone who works specifically on audience development.


Nick Fraser (left), BBC Storyville, talks to the audience after his “Cage Match” (Credit: Tatiana Gelfand, courtesy IFP)
The week also featured the five-day Filmmaker Conference, which was open to a broader public. One day was devoted solely to documentary, and offered a jam-packed series of sessions covering topics that included Financial Realities for Social Issue Film; Documentary Funding; and Outreach and Audience Building. The conference also presented a case study about the film Restrepo, and a "Cage Match" that triggered a conversation around the notion of Filmmaking or Activism that featured Nick Fraser from BBC's Storyville, Julie Goldman from Motto Pictures and Debbie Zimmerman from Women Make Movies, with POV's Yance Ford moderating. The upshot of this conversation was a sense that there needs to be a broader filter for thinking about documentaries, that there's an over-emphasis on social issue docs in the American climate these days. There seems to be a deep distrust of artists, a lack of creative risk-taking. We need more balance; all documentaries can't always be driven to make change. And in fact, it was recently announced that the Tribeca Film Institute has launched a new documentary fund to address this. In addition to the Tribeca Gucci Documentary Fund, which focuses on issues of social importance from around the world, the TFI Documentary Fund, presented by HBO, was created to further the development of character-driven documentaries. The fact is, as a community, we need to start demanding more diversity and range.  Time will tell.


Kathy Brew is an independent filmmaker, media arts curator and writer, who also teaches at The New School, The School of Visual Arts and Rutgers University.