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'Independent' Study: The Film Market as Film School

By Gregory Orr

IFP Market attendees gather outside Angelika Film Center.

Film school offers students a bundle of resources, including a learned faculty, access to a wide variety of movies, shared camaraderie with fellow students and the free flow of ideas and opinions about a common passion: film. Recently in New York, filmmakers were given another dose of these resources during a week of screenings, seminars and chance encounters at the Independent Feature Project Market (IFM). Running from September 15 to 22, this was the IFP's 22nd annual market, and by all accounts it was a great success.

"After film school there isn't a venue for sharing information or seeing works-in-progress," says recent Stanford graduate and IDA member Laura Miller, whose documentary short Slender Existence was an IFC Student Award finalist. "The market creates a space for that." First time IDA filmmaker Carol Ciancutti-Leyva agrees. "You work alone on your project for so long, and all of a sudden you're with other filmmakers and people who are interested in your film."

The market is unlike any other in the US. Closed to the general public, it is a place for filmmakers to see each other's work and meet with potential buyers and backers, particularly those interested in documentaries. "lt's a fact of the current situation in acquisitions that documentary work in the market [is more attractivel than narrative work-in terms of interest, investment or acquisition," says Market Director Milton Tabbot.

Now in its third decade, the market has helped launch a host of independent feature films and such outstanding documetaries as Roger and Me, Sherman's March, Paris Is Burning and The Farm: Angola, USA. This year the market presented 128 documentaries, including 76 works-in-progress, and a long list of seminars with panelists from television acquisition and theatrical distribution. The market reportedly attracted over 2,500 film and television professionals from the US and abroad.

Where MIP, MIPCOM and NATPE are dominated by TV executives, IFP is for working filmmakers who need advice, exposure and money. The section of IFM called "No Borders" is considered one of the most valuable resources of the IFP because it introduces selected filmmakers to potential co-production partners.

"It's a completely essential event," says Peter Broderick of Next Wave Films. Adds documentary filmmaker Stephan Kijak, "They pair you up with distributors and financiers. They make a schedule for you. I feel completely taken care of."

Rare are the times when a break-out finished film arrives at a festival without distribution, leading to a frenzied bidding war. Now most films are partnered up earlier in production, making IFP's access to worksin-progress invaluable to distributors.

"I was taken seriously at No Borders," says IDA filmmaker William Cole, whose film Swat Nation was shown as a work-in-progress. "The market did not provide production funding, but the meetings helped the tracking process and left the doors open." IDA member Jeff Shane was not invited to 'No Borders,' but that didn't stop him from promoting his work-in-progress, Stutter Steps, a personal look at stuttering. "I found the networking meetings helpful. I had a basic spiel and just presented my project throughout the market. I handed out postcards and asked company reps to see my film in the video library if they missed the screening. I was able to reach the people I wanted."

At the market, support for the independent filmmaker comes in many forms. This year, IFP awarded $70,000 in cash and production services to several filmmakers. Equally valuable, says filmmaker Carol Ciancutti-Leyva, is the chance to see one's film on a big screen with an audience: "It gave me a new perspective. I could see what worked and what didn't." Also available to anyone with a project in the market was a donated, one-year website managed by

For Ciancutti-Leyva, the market—while sometimes intimidating—is a wonderful resource. "lt's not really like me to promote myself, but the market gives you an easy environment to talk to people. One guy I talked to turned out to be a major distributor and he came to my screening." She advises first-time filmmakers to "relax and enjoy it," a theme shared by others. "Try to be at the market all day," says filmmaker William Cole, "lnevitably, you meet someone worth talking to." He adds that being at the market also helps to stake a claim on a project's subject matter with distributors. "lt's almost like the idea becomes your intellectual property," he laughs.

Lessons to be learned? Several. First, be prepared. If you have a project at the market, contact potential buyers early and have press material on hand. Second, according to many of the panelists, theatrical distribution of documentaries is a difficult sell and won't be changing soon. Says Patrick Gunn of Artisan Entertainment. "Docs are a challenge theatrically. One doc a year is our max." Third. TV remains the best place to sell documentaries, but expect a fight when it comes to rights. The cable broadcasters believe that if they give you the money to make your documentary, they then should end up owning it. Bringing more components to the table, like money or pre-sales, can insure a better deal for you.

The good news is that the cable companies seem open to new ideas. Usually a one-page pitch letter will suffice. All the panelists advised filmmakers to know the channels. Comments Cole, who's making a film about police power, "I met with a variety of broadcasters—each with his or her own thoughts about their core audience needswhich made me think about what kind of film I wanted to make. TLC wanted to talk about the footage, others were interested in character and story and PBS focused on the issue itself." The panelists also encouraged new filmmakers to consider aligning themselves with an established producer. "We're not a film school or foundation for beginning filmmakers," says Lauren Lazen of MTV.

One left the IFP Market knowing that documentaries are moving ahead with a fresh inventiveness, partially powered by the DV revolution, which is gaining in aesthetic acceptance. While the market reminded filmmakers that it's not enough to pick up a camera and shoot, it did encourage us to make films. In the future let's hope it will encourage us to grow up as an industry.


Gregory Orr is a freelance filmmaker living in New York. His latest project is a portrait of an Arizona cattle ranch struggling to maintain a dying tradition while fending off political pressures from housing developers and environmentalists.


Doc Dichotomy Dominates Discussion

By Susan Berry

The Independent Feature Project organized a stellar line up of panelists for its well-attended “Spotlight on Docs” series, a two-day line-up of documentary-specific panels held at the historic Puck Building.  In between screenings and business meetings, the panels provided an excellent educational opportunity.

The main message conveyed was that filmmakers must become more business-savvy in the face of the tremendous competition resulting from changes in technology and the marketplace

This year, IDA introduced The International Marketplace for Documentaries panel, featuring moderator Wendy Braitman of IFFCON and Jan Rofekamp of Films Transit International. Rofekamp noted the importance of creating a “public life” for one’s film through film festivals and described the international climate for American documentaries.

The Marketing Case Studies panel addressed how to ignite audience attention by targeting marketing efforts through website promotion, e-mail management, market research and development of collateral materials, as well as film festivals, radio shows and special events.

One theme that resonated through many of the panels was the dichotomy between filmmaking as an art and as a business. The Programmer’s Eye panel discussed the objectives of creating a film under intense financial pressure in the arena of specialized exhibition, and asked the common question, should films reflect the filmmaker’s passion for their subject, or maximize the potential audience? 
For a complete list of panels and panelists, visit the IFP website at


Susan Berry is IDA’s East Coast Coordinator.