January 31, 2005

To Market, to Market… IFP's Annual Gathering Encourages Doc Makers to Find Their Audience

A ritual practiced by Chinese communities in Malaysia. From Peter Friedman and Roger Manley's Mana -- 'Beyond Belief,' a nominee for the Documentary Feature Award at the 2004 IFP Market. Photo: Eric Guichard

The 26th Independent Feature Project's (IFP) Film Market, held in New York in September, aimed to "bring together the business and creative communities to foster American independent talent."  What the market really feels like is a combination book fair, industry film festival and back-to-school session. It is a field report from the frontlines on the pros and cons of documentary commissioning, programming and distribution, as well as technical promises, philosophical musings and the creative products themselves. 

Legendary documentarian Al Maysles asserted at one of the panels that if Tolstoy were around today, he would put down his pencil and say, "I should have had a camera." Documentary filmmakers, Maysles implies, are the storytellers of our age.

As for the films themselves, they represented a wide range of subjects, from war to politics to personal memories to environmental concerns. Many of the films reflected the makers' personal passions—or obsessions—to let the world know about their subjects. Sometimes the subject was a cause, sometimes a character and sometimes a polemic. Most of the nearly 100 documentaries screened at the market were works-in-progress—some smooth and stylish and, with a few notable exceptions, distinguished by straightforward storytelling. Overall viewing the films was not so much like looking through a microscope and finding the macro in the micro as it was like listening with a stethoscope for the rhythms and beats of the story. 

A notable exception to straightforward storytelling that was more oblique and impressionistic was Peter Friedman and Roger Manley's Mana—Beyond Belief, which was nominated for an IFP Market Award for Best Documentary Feature. The film recalls Godfrey Reggio's Koyaanisqatsi—Life Out of Balance (1983), a visually poetic rendering of the collision between urban life and the environment. But Mana, which is the Polynesian word for power or prestige, turns a global meditation on sacred objects into an abusurdist reading of people's obsessions with artistic, economic or patriot symbols.

Following Sean, another IFP Market Award nominee, is a follow-up to Ralph Arlyck's 1969 short, Sean. Thirty-five years later, Arlyck sets out to discover what happened to the four-year old, pot-smoking hippie child of that film. Arlyck intertwines his own story as a white, Jewish, New York filmmaker with that of Sean, and we're reminded of the documentary mini-movement of filmed self-discovery through the search for a friend or relative (think Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect, Lucia Smalls' My Father the Genius, Aiyana Elliot's The Ballad of Rambling Jack). 

Jonathan Berman's Commune looks back to the same 1960s period through a collective, though equally evocative experience. Perhaps the contemporary version of a communal experience is Three of Hearts: A Postmodern Family (Susan Kaplan, dir./prod.; Sarie Horowitz, prod.), which tracks a "trinogomous" menage à trois over 13 years.

In Ouidah, Benin, voodoo believers assert that touching the spinning cloth cape of a Revenant ancestor spirit during an E'gun-Gun ceremony can cause death. From Peter Friedman and Roger Manley's <em>Mana--Beyond Belief</em>, a nominee for the Documentary Feature Award at the 2004 IFP Market. Photo: Jacques Bessehttp://www.documentary.org/images/magazine/2005/ManaBeyondBelief2_Jan200..." style="width: 647px; height: 411px;">

La Sierra (Scott Dalton), the IFP Market Award-winner, focuses on three young people in Medellin, Columbia, who are entrenched in the gang warfare that runs their neighborhood. Although remarkable for the trust that the filmmaker established with his subjects in this endless cycle of violence and poverty, the film suffers from one-sidedness; all three of the protagonists are on the same side of the conflict between two rival gangs vying for control. 

Connie Field's Have You Heard from Johannesburg? chronicles how the US government and big business ignored apartheid in South Africa, enabling the policy to continue while citizens here and there fought tirelessly for its defeat. Other politically themed films of note included This Land Is Your Land (Lori Cheatle, dir./prod.; Daisy Wright, dir.), a wry look at individual efforts to take on corporate America; The War After (Laura Poitras, dir./prod,; Jocelyn Glatzer, prod.), about the lead-up to elections in Iraq, and Anne Makepeace's Refugee Dreams, concerning Somali Bantu families who emigrate to the US and the challenges they encounter. 

Many of the discussions at the market centered on getting one's film to the audience through creative distribution, and extending the afterlife of films—after broadcast, after festivals, after the original plan has fallen through. 

Since the ongoing digital revolution has given makers the tools to knock down the barriers, distribution looms as the next frontier in need of radical change. At a panel that addressed the subject, Peter Broderick, president of Paradigm Consulting, maintained that distribution was an arena in crisis. He described five losses: (1) loss of control, where a filmmaker finds himself stuck in an overall distribution deal for 15-25 years; (2) loss of time, where decisions are made on the basis of the first screening of the first night of release; (3) loss of video opportunities, regarding who can distribute the work; (4) loss of revenue; and (5) loss of independence. 

Broderick encouraged makers to create their own distribution plans and incorporate a strategy in the event of a worst-case scenario: no festivals, no video retail distributor and no TV outlet. He suggested that filmmakers sell their DVDs and videos from their own websites, targeting their core audiences, and he recommended that filmmakers retain website sales rights, no matter what deals they strike.

By retaining these rights, filmmakers can collect the names and contact information of their patrons and establish a direct relationship with them, getting feedback, creating a sense of artistic patronage, tailoring the marketing materials for the products to reach beyond the core audience—and reaping a higher per-unit profit. Steve Rosenbaum of CameraPlanet.com also suggested retaining video-on-demand rights via broadband.

In a similar panel entitled Finding Your Audience, Paul Devlin, producer/director of Power Trip, Slamnation and Freestyle, found that after having been burned by distributors, the labor-intensive answer for him was self-distribution. He made a far higher profit margin, and he knew his market better than the pros. Devlin makes two different versions of his films—one for the education market, and the other for the home video/DVD market. He's even been charging screening fees to both groups, as well as to film festivals.

Attorney Bob Siegel of Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP recommended trying a booker or service company like Artistic License (whom he represents) who identify buyers, while Eve Kolodner of Salty Features found that cinema exhibitors are another possible route. Her film Evergreen was seen at a festival by an AMC Theatres executive, who offered to distribute it to 150 screens via digital satellite.  

Although some on the panel and in the audience argued that DVDs have diminished the power of festivals, others claimed to have milked the circuit and university bookings, taking their films on the road for years. And commissioners, distributors and makers emphasized that one is not just making a film anymore but a series of products including DVD, website, blogs and whatever else can be dreamed up. 

There was much talk on another panel about a second wind for your film, beyond festivals and broadcasts, but the panelists emphasized that this a self-generated wind. Whitney Dow (Two Towns of Jasper) cautioned that film festivals are not the finish line; they are the starting line. For Two Towns of Jasper, the 2002 Sundance Film Festival was a launch pad; Dow and co-director/producer Marco Williams also screened their film for the Utah State Legislature during its debate on hate crimes legislation. With a fixed broadcast date on PBS' POV, the filmmakers took a two-pronged approach—outreach before broadcast, and outreach after broadcast. They teamed up with relevant educational, political, grassroots and faith-based nonprofit organizations to devise programs, and ABC News' Nightline broadcast a town hall meeting on the same night as the PBS airing. A spot on Oprah afterwards enhanced interest, and with the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation, teacher training packets, town hall meetings and other efforts stretched the life and impact of the film.

Another panelist, Sandi DuBowski, talked about how he created events around screenings of his 2001 film Trembling Before G-d, using it as a centerpiece for discussion, debate and dialogue. For the DVD that was released last year, DuBowski included footage culled from speaking engagements, on-line dialogues, mental health conferences and classrooms in the Israeli school system.

In what seemed a fitting coda to the 2004 market, Broderick disputed the conventional wisdom that one's core audience will find the film if it's marketed to a general audience, saying that one's core audiences are already organized, and encouraged filmmakers to go out and find them.

 

Susan Morris is a producer, director and media consultant who has worked for New York Times Television, TRIO, BBC, BRAVO, IFC, WNYC, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the J. Paul Getty Trust, the Rockefeller Foundation, WNET/Thirteen and Condé Nast.

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