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Independence Days: IFP's Market and Conference Offer the Shape of Docs to Come

By Jody Arlington

Independent Feature Project's annual Independent Film Week celebrated its 2007 edition September 16-19 in New York City, combining its 29th Annual IFP Market, the 3rd Annual Filmmaker Conference and the 15th anniversary of IFP's FILMMAKER magazine, marking a weeklong excursion into the heart of the independent filmmaking and distribution process. IFP has nurtured over 7,000 projects, including the hit documentary Mad Hot Ballroom and the Oscar-winning Born Into Brothels as well as such landmark fiction films as Maria Full of Grace, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Clerks, The Brothers McMullen and Half Nelson. This year programmers selected 168 projects for inclusion from 1,500 submissions, with documentaries comprising 54 percent of the films presented.

IFP is one of the few markets in the world where creators are connected with financiers, producers and programmers before the work is completed and on the festival circuit, with closed screenings, "speed-dating"-style networking and buyer-requested meetings that the market's three curators set up on behalf of the projects. Projects screen in three sections: Spotlight on Documentary, for projects seeking funding and distribution; No Borders, a co-production market for partially funded projects seeking global funding; and Emerging Narrative, for writer-directors looking for producers. The Spotlight on Documentaries section is curated by Milton Tabbot, Emerging Narrative by Amy Dotson and No Borders by Susan Boehm.

"Every year we see a growing demand for the uniqueness of what the IFP has to offer--an efficient and productive environment for the community of individuals involved in making, programming, buying and selling independent film to convene and discover new projects long before they are completed," says IFP Executive Director Michelle Byrd.

The 2007 Spotlight on Documentary featured 65 works-in-progress, 20 completed features and six completed shorts, with a number of science and performing arts-themed projects. Tabbot notes that this year's documentary projects were one of the IFP's "strongest groups ever, with quality the operative word across the board."

Some of the projects from veterans that had industry insiders' attention included Marshall Curry and Sam Cullman's If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front, which chronicles ELF and one of its radical environmentalists; Nancy Kates' Regarding Susan Sontag, an examination of the late writer's life and work; Rick Minnich's Journey through an Invisible Wall, which follows the apparent memory loss of a failing family man after an accident; Danae Elon's The Evil Tongue, about sexual abuse and its cover-up in a Jewish community; and Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich's The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, a character-driven look at whistle-blowing. Newcomers to watch include Matt Boyd, for his genre-busting A Rubberband is an Unlikely Instrument, which follows an eccentric musician grappling to find his creative voice; Paul Rowley and Nicky Grogan's Mosney, about the asylum-seeker detention center north of Dublin; and Landon Von Soest, who received the $10,000 Fledgling Fund Award for Socially Conscious Documentaries for Good Fortune, which explores, through portraits of individuals in Kenya, how international aid in Africa is exacerbating poverty there.

A key feature of the IFP program, the buyer-requested meetings, ensures all formal interactions are between mutually interested parties, a benefit that both sides laud as a formula for success. PBS, HBO, ITVS, Sundance Channel, IFC, A&E Indie Films, YLE and BMP were among the buyers scouting content this year. For just one example of IFP's process at work, look no further than Danae Elon's The Evil Tongue, which she just began shooting. After her meeting with YLE's Iikka Vehkalahti, she received a pre-sale offer and promise of support, which signals a domino effect of wider support to come from international broadcasters. "From my point of view, this is the most important sale to make," Elon maintains. "The first commissioning editor who is willing to take the risk and believe in the project is what creates the engine that makes the film happen.  Iikka's endorsement of the film means a tremendous amount for the actual creation of the entire project."

The Filmmaker Conference featured 35 panels that were often standing-room-only, offering expert information on how indie films are financed and produced and how they make their way to audiences in theaters, on television and online. The panels covered everything from pre-production to post-theatrical ancilliary distribution. Highly anticipated conversations were with John Salyes and his producer, Maggie Renzi; QED's head, Bill Block; and Participant Productions' Diane Weyermann, who expressed best the topic on everyone's mind: A glut of documentary product, however worthy, is harming the genre. While the quality and quantity of documentary film has expanded, the traditional broadcast/distribution pipeline has remained the same, or in some cases has atrophied. Alternative distribution is in development, but the monetization of online distribution has yet to realize its promise, despite a continued lively discussion of its potential at the conference. It was no coincidence that Variety's headline for the weekly edition at the market read, "Gluts & Glory: Fall's Title Wave of Specialty Pics Creates a Problem of Darwinian Survival." 

The glut was exacerbated by the rules for Academy Award consideration for documentaries, which had required runs in 14 cities in 10 states, producing a crunched time-frame and forcing a cannibalization of the form, with no time to build an audience or keep a screen. The Academy recently eliminated the multi-city theatrical roll-out for the 81st Academy Awards, instead requiring week-long runs in both New York and Los Angeles. The glut concerns were echoed in the "The Buying and Selling of Non-Fiction" panel, which featured, among others, Submarine's Josh Braun, Newport/Hamptons Festival programmer David Nugent and Docurama's Liz Ogilve. Nugent gave a mini-primer on some of the 2007 theatrical surprises and their impact on distributor decision-making: Arctic Tale underperformed; No End in Sight over-performed; Crazy Love didn't quite work; and Into Great Silence, a three-hour meditation on monks, performed exceedingly well. Meanwhile, many lamented that festival sweetheart In the Shadow of the Moon had barely registered theatrically.

A personal panel favorite was "Stranger than Fiction: Doc Hybrids," designed to explore the new documentaries blurring the line between fact and fiction and how the hybrids are changing the financial landscape and reshaping viewers' opinions on the form. The panelists, which included Bruni Burres of the Sundance Documentary Program and Human Rights Watch International Festival; Ariana Garfinkel, of the film Trumbo; Dave Tecson of Edgeworx; and Brett Morgen, director of Chicago 10, seemed fundamentally at odds with the notion of doc hybrids and a nostalgic golden age of pure vérité (e.g., Flaherty's 1922 Nanook of the North being no different from Winterbottom's 2006 Road to Guantanamo in its re-creation of "truth"), focusing instead on the power these narrative tools bring to the storytelling process and the importance of allowing the material to dictate cinematic decision-making. Morgen delivered his take on documentary with characteristic bombast and a flutter of curls: "Vérité is bullshit and truth is through staging." Class dismissed.

As the IFP begins planning for its 30th Anniversary in 2008, Michelle Byrd hints at new programming and activities to be unveiled next year. Of IFP's mission to nurture and celebrate independent film and filmmakers, and foster a vibrant independent filmmaking community, Byrd and her team can claim mission accomplished, with a new crop of established and emerging filmmakers gaining new business and creative connections that will serve them during the arduous path from completion to exhibition on their current and future projects.

Jody Arlington is a veteran PR strategist and leads Weber Merritt's entertainment practice.