IFP 2009 Independent Film Week and Conference

IFP - Independent Film Week

In the context of a weak economy, the scarcity of income generating outlets for independent productions, and the constantly rising number of prospective film makers, the 31st edition of the annual IFP, Independent Feature project was held from September 19 – 24 in New York City.  After the demise of AIVF (Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers) IFP remains the most important organization catering to independent film makers and had about 10 000 members, including the Los Angeles chapter before its split from IFP.

Whereas for most of its history IFP presented an annual market, providing resources to thousands of independent film makers and supporting the production of many features and documentaries, its programs and mission  have been redefined  since 2008  Thus the name changed from IFP Market to Independent Film Week which runs concurrently with the Independent Filmmaker Conference.  Possibly anticipating the collapse of the market for independent productions, the annual IFP market was abandoned which had presented independent features and documentaries focusing on actual and potential deals. Thus emphasis has shifted to documentaries in progress, projects in development, career development   and trade seminars. Retained were successful IFP components such as the co-production market, the showcasing of specific countries, like Canada and the UK, and the documentary and narrative labs for first time film makers connecting them with mentors before they enter the film festival circuit. The film week still offered the resources noted but placed a much greater emphasis on networking and works in progress.

In the Co-production market ‘No Borders International’ 25 productions were listed with the largest number originating in Europe and the United States.  The spotlight on documentaries presented close to 80 productions giving the producers and/or directors the opportunity to discuss the status of their projects after showing segments from their work.  As in past years, distributors identified productions in various stages of completion that fit their orientation.  It is noteworthy that there was much praise for the quality of the material reviewed. As one seasoned buyer from the non-theatrical market observed, judged from the content and the production value, the documentaries met professional expectations and there were no problems writing letters commending the production for completion funding. (There is virtually no non-theatrical distributor providing production funding)

The program included a weeklong conference on ‘winning strategies on the art and business of independent filmmaking’. The conference offered 30 one-hour long panels on virtually all aspects of independent films, from production to distribution in domestic and foreign markets as discussed by a large number of panelists. It is certainly difficult to do justice to all of the panels, but some critical comments are in place.   As suggested in my article on the U. S. Independent Film Blues, there is a rapidly growing discrepancy between the number of aspiring independent film makers and their productions on one hand and the number of income generating outlets on the other.  Thus more than ever before “making money” has become an elusive goal for independent film makers.

Ironically, when listening to the IFC panelists, that issue seems to be avoided, though ‘career development’ is now part of IFP’s official mission  and a large proportion of the audience consisted of aspiring filmmakers.  One response to the market dilemma is that independent film making is defined as an art form, thus the film maker’s position comes close to that of the studio artist who knows that no living can be made building sculptures. Evidently placing the onus on the student who received a BA in film making is problematic since students are not drawn to studio art with the promise that there are money making opportunities in the creative arts. Those attracted to the estimated 1500 US colleges offering programs in film and video making are directly or indirectly advised that there are jobs. It is interesting that authors with an upbeat view of the job situation are in most cases college professors teaching film or video productions or chairs of such departments. They are much more interested in recruiting students to their courses and departments than in the actual job market.

Some deny that there is a problem.  Thus Vladan Nikolic from the New School’s film program is quoted in the summer issue of Filmmaker, an IFP publication, as arguing that image making skills can be parlayed into sustainable careers.  As he suggests “The chances of making a living have not gotten smaller”, a surprising observation since the percentage of U.S. students with a BA who do not work is with 15% higher than the unemployment rate.  Thus many graduates who thought of making a living in website design are now using their skills for developing their own personal website adding to the surplus of internet information.  Nicolic’s suggestion can be tied to the commonly shared view that the multiplication of distribution platforms has opened new avenues for independent filmmakers. As in other independent debates no hard data are offered how these platforms have helped independent filmmakers to profile themselves to get jobs in the industry or to generate income. Rather individual successful experiences are discussed on the panels which hardly stand for the norm.  Further, the extent to which the much praised alternative platforms are used in the U.S. to view video productions is greatly exaggerated.  According to Nielsen’s 1st quarter 2009 report, 99% of the video watched in the United States is done through television. Thus, in spite of significant increases, internet use for streaming video   does not reach more than 1% of the viewers not exceeding three hours a month for the average viewer. Mobile phone subscriber watch half an hour more but focus on weather and comedy, hardly fields thematic popular among independents.  It is noteworthy that when I interviewed several instructors training film students they estimated that about 30% of the population watches video on the internet.

The indie film maker is on his/her own. Underlying the isolation from income generating sources are many factors, including but not restricted to the decline in distribution companies, the dramatic decrease of funds for buying or producing indie films, the problem of getting publicity for productions since many print film reviewers have been fired, the reluctance by buyers to touch anything that may be controversial and the small indie audience limiting successful self-distribution attempts. Nonetheless,  the same advice covering career and market issues is provided by  IFC panels  and most conferences aimed at the indie film maker: brand yourself, create your own audience, experiment with any format and length, adopt a theme no one else is covering, such as ‘grandma’s  depression area cooking’ or ‘early morning swimming’ , “but do it well since there is so much crap on the internet”, enter self distribution,  build  social networks , use film festivals as a  release rather than sales platform, etc. Further the indie film maker should have networking abilities, a taste for eclecticism, create social capital, have determination, tenacity, and ambition, and think outside the box.  It is ironic that panelists who discussed survival strategies for independent film makers all appeared to have all full time positions in television, teaching and other areas, hardly comparable to the condition of many independent film makers in the audience.

A similar discrepancy arose in the debate of film festivals. Those belonging to the top festivals (out of an estimated 5000 festivals worldwide) were represented on the conference panel, Sundance, Karlovy Vary, Berlin, Sydney, Toronto, etc.  Yet what there was no reference to the fact that the more established a fest is, the more productions are submitted and the smaller are the chances to be selected. In 2009 only 2.5% of the 7322 features submitted to Sundance were chosen for the final program, compared to the 96 shorts in the program selected from 5631 received, the total number of Sundance entries growing at an annual rate of 10%.   According to Christoph Terhechte, who curates the well received Forum program of the berlinale (the Berlin International Film Festival), the number of productions received grows by 15% each year and had reached more than 5000 productions two month before the deadline for the 2010 berlinale edition. Here it should be noted that a large proportion of the films in the final berlinale program are not selected from the submissions but identified through personal contacts, travels, festivals, etc.  Thus the chances for a first time independent film maker to make it into one of the top international film festivals are extremely slim. It would have been interesting to have a panelist representing a lesser known regional New York metropolitan fest such as the Brooklyn International Film Festival to speak about its selection process. But even there about 3000 productions were submitted for the BIFF last edition, forcing the fest to be much more selective than in the early editions.

Yet in spite of this criticism I certainly recommend IFP’s film week and conference to independents. As I noted the industry part, that is the screenings of work in progress, the co-production market, and labs were very well received. In spite of their shortcomings, the panels of the conference provided useful information though should they be approached with a questioning spirit.


Claus Mueller
New York Correspondent
filmexchange@gmail.com

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