Independent Feature Film Market Report
By Elise Fried
Many people ask, and rightly so: Of what use it is to spend the money and time schmoozing at festivals and markets? Whether one has a clearly defined goal, such as finding a distributor, or a more diffuse goal, such as meeting other members of the restless nomadic tribe known as filmmakers and their hangers-on, my advice is, GO!
You may ask yourself, But what HAPPENS? All this buzz, fermentation, clash of personalities, and encounters with people with interests similar to yours causes you to produce more ideas and energy in a week than you usually generated in a month or two or three. If you don't leave your house, nothing happens to you. You send out faxes and get a lesser percentage in return.
I have found it is very useful to see people every year or two, so they can connect a face with a fax, a voice with your personal sensibility. You become a story to those interested in stories, and whether they like you or not, your life becomes an ongoing soap opera of which they like to keep abreast. There is a difference in the way you are treated by "players " if you are considered a flash in the pan, someone who made one deeply felt film and will soon be back selling real estate. They are far more interested in you if you are perceived to be in this field for the long haul, as your chosen occupation.
I have, against my better judgment, chosen filmmaking as my craft, and I attend events like the Independent Feature Film Market, which occurs at the Angelika Theater in New York City in late September every year, from this perspective. I believe the long-term approach is the least depressing and wisest course for filmmakers to take. Patience, persistence, and observation seem to be the key terms for success in this business .
I did not have a film in the 1994 market, but instead went with two finished documentaries in my bag, to give away and possibly to sell to broadcasters. This was my immediate and apparent reason to ask to meet the people I wished to meet. Really I went to see what would happen.
I decided to go to the IFFM two weeks beforehand, when a producer friend who had three films showing at the festival made one of his passes available in exchange for my assistance. I thus became the official rep for The Beast. I did my best to live up to the nickname emblazoned in plastic on my breast, "Elise, The Beast. " I thought it funny and, besides, it was far better than being known as "Elise, Mod F#ck Explosion, " his other film.
The week before the festival, I sent off 35 faxes from the previous year's book of attendees. I received only two personal replies. When I arrived, I found that half the people I had written did not have mailboxes, and others were attending incognito. Where I could, I put duplicates of the faces I'd sent in the worthless overstuffed mailboxes, which are cleared of their contents twice a week (be warned); I received two more replies via my dad's office. (This is not an aberration. These mailboxes were just as worthless three years ago; try any other means of contact.) After all this ground work, I did not receive definite replies for meetings. By the end of the week, however, I had a 15-minute meeting with everyone I had written who was there and more.
How did that happen? This is the advantage of just showing up. You recognize them, they recognize you, and because you are wearing "The Blue Badge," you are members of the same short-lived club that is invited to all the same free parties. You get your Danish at the same counter. My advice is: Sit at a table with an extra chair for an afternoon and see who sits down next to you. Previously distant names become Real People. I recognized Peter Moore, a head of documentaries and commissioning editor for England's Channel 4, and asked him to lunch. He was gracious enough to accept. Ellen Schneider, of P.O.V. fame, shared a stoop with me and told me I was doing better professionally than I had until then imagined myself to be. For what that is worth, it did make me feel better. I cornered the revered independent film consultant Bob Hawk to help a newly made friend's brilliant feature. He took one look at my nametag and said, "Elise, hmmmm, I've been meaning to get in touch with you." It turned out to be regarding a letter I had written eight months ago to someone else, about putting on a seminar within a conference, which he volunteered to do with me!
Where does this temporary and flattering acceptance get you? Would Bob Hawke have remembered to get in touch had I not been standing there? What does it all mean anyway? In the short term, it makes it easier to work in solitude if you feel that there is someone out there waiting for your next great idea. It makes doing business nicer; it feels better to write personal business letters instead of nervous formal ones. Most importantly, you are planting a seed of mutual interest, watering it occasionally, and seeing if anything grows there. On a practical level you have all these nifty directories and books to create at least another three weeks of work for yourself once you come back.
I cannot tell you how many times I wind up doing something after there has been absolutely no response to a query. For example, once I asked Danish TV if they wanted a film of mine. A year later, after having forgotten about it and indeed written it off as a complete waste of one of those beautiful late summer days, I suddenly got a positive response out of the blue. (I met that lady from Danish TV again at this year's IFFM and was able to thank her for the two months' rent.) Two of my films happened this way. I sent a tape to someone who recommended it to someone else. I sent a proposal to Arte/ZDF, to which they responded affirmatively after nine months of no contact; I ended up making a film for them.
In the end, what exactly happened to me at the IFFM? I could say nothing, or a lot. You be the judge. I met briefly with a half-dozen TV buyers of documentaries, two doc distributors, and some sweet folks from European festivals. I attended seminars, tried to figure out if I should go low budget with my as-yet-unwritten first fiction film or try to raise $2 million. I met numerous in the enthusiastic, quirky, and even talented peers with whom I would like to collaborate in the future if they would have me. I took notes on good camera people and producers. I watched the first feature films of four old friends and was happy to find that I could honestly congratulate them.
I met guru/independent film consultant Bob Hawk, lawyer/heavy John Sloss, and indie film savior John Pierson, all of whom played a large part in getting Clerks seen; they are also interested in representing good documentaries. I shyly cornered all of them after they spoke on separate panel discussions. Best of all, I sent six filmmakers over to Fine Line Features president, Ira Deutchman, as he leaned on a column at the Puck Building annual party, after telling him I would sell his location on the floor to any asking filmmaker for five bucks. He didn't move. I believe he was performing his civic duty as a mensch and humoring pitches as some residual Yorn Kippur penitence. The fact is, they did pitch him, and one got through—he liked the idea. That's all you can ask for at a film fest. The details are worked out later; follow-up is all important, as is a sense of humor. There is no glory without hard work, and you can't maintain the hard work without the occasional replenishment.
More odd connections happened. Angelika, of the Angelika Theater, asked me to help with a documentary series on women around the world after she settles some legal matters. Although I am not holding my breath, she did produce Streetwise. Even if nothing comes of it, she gave me six free passes to her theater, and I gave them to my mom, who was finally impressed with something I've done. I met Tirlok Malik, producer of Lonely in America and other feature films about South-Asians. As I have made an obscure documentary about Pakistani marriages, we had heard of each other and seen one another's films, but had never had the opportunity to meet. We had dinner, and I critiqued his latest film in the most polite way I could while remaining constructive. He valued my opinion, and we hope to collaborate in the future.
I met with the head of Pakistan cable television, who invited me to help on his documentary on the Indus River valley. (I'll believe it when it happens.) This stranger offered to come to San Francisco two weeks later to produce a one hour show on arranged marriages to help me out. (I am currently trying to find a bride for my next film on the topic of arranged marriages, for National Geographic.) I met another lady milling about after a seminar on coproductions who is producing a "theme day" for Arte/ZDF. She is doing four hours on American cities and culture. I gave her a cassette to see if I could do a segment; we shall see. Peter Moore, film programmer for the Pacific Film Archive, asked me to send him a copy of my newer film. Although I had shown there, we had never met. All in all, I handed out about nine tapes and sent out six more afterward.
I spent my spare time repping four people whose films I liked and introducing them to bigwigs. Usually they whispered some backstory to use in their introduction in my right ear as we awaited our turn to chat. They felt more business like, more confident, and it made me feel great to be of use.
New York City is so dense that stuff just happens. In the one day I decided to stay on after the conference, I met with National Geographic, visited the Met and the Museum of Modern Art, saw my old grade school friends, "the twins," who now sing in the Catskills, wandered into Lincoln Center and saw the second half of Pavarotti, participated in performance art at the Avenue B and 3rd Street collective, Collective Unconscious, drank beer out of a paper bag, and set things on fire. San Francisco filmmakers have the stamina advantage of being on California time and of being deprived of street buzz.
I realized four important things from being at the IFFM. One, I need to hand cassettes out to people and not treat them as a gift or a shy present. They are also a sales tool. They should be given freely to anyone who expresses the least amount of interest in my work and can possibly help me get more work.
Two, I am not doing so badly after all; it only seems so from the relative isolation of my apartment. We are all going through the same struggles. As a friend said, get used to it or get out.
Three, I need to do the work before I am invited to the ball.
Four, the film world is full of increasingly bizarre and surreal connections that you cannot predict cause to happen, or explain-you just have to BE there. As the directors tell it, there were six people at the initial screening of Clerks at the 1993 IFFM. One was Bob Hawk, who recommended it to John Pierson and Sundance; the rest is history. My advice is: Go, stick yourself in the middle of it, and learn from the example of Clerks. Only one connected person needs to see and like your film to set off some as-yet undreamed-of chain of events.
Epilogue: After the IFFM, I attended "The World According to John Pierson" at the Film Arts Foundation in San Francisco. Upon seeing me, Pierson loudly exclaimed, "Gee, Elise, you're here, thanks for coming," which turned my head. I gave him a tape of my last film to watch, for fun, for advice, and so he can know my work. Something might come of it...in a few years.
Elise Fried is a documentary filmmaker living in San Francisco. She has made films for European television and the U.S. educational market, and she welcomes contact via e mail: email@example.com.