June 4, 2009

Merger Mania Strikes Nonprofits Too

I keep getting stuck as I try to write this article--nonprofits, their future and the Web are the vague keywords I started out with, but rather than a bright, clear path into the future, the difficulties of the nonprofit world, as opposed to innovation or flourishing in the future, is what stands out in stark relief. The economic downturn is sure to get worse before it gets better; The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that out of 66 nonprofit organizations surveyed at the end of 2008, 37 were showing less income for the year. That proportion is sure to rise in 2009.

The loss of funding from government for media arts resulted in nonprofit organizations having to rely more heavily on corporate and foundation support, as well as membership dollars. Corporate and foundation giving, such as it might be in a slow economy, will certainly go toward human services like hunger relief and health issues. It would be tough to argue that those dollars belong in films, as opposed to food and medicine for those who have lost their jobs and will be without hope of finding new ones anytime soon.

I have spent much of my time in the film world working with nonprofit organizations--the Center for Social Media, the Tribeca Film Institute, the Austin Film Society and the International Documentary Association, through my contributions to this magazine--and the people I have worked with over the years believe in the value of independent voices in media and exploring storytelling conventions. We see the importance of fostering and supporting filmmakers who wish to tell stories that don't fit into a cable channel format, or stories that don't appeal to masses at the multiplex. But these kinds of films and the people who make them are often defined by working on the outside of a system built for mass consumption of, more often than not, hollow fare, and so they turn to nonprofit organizations, foundations, private investors and what little government support remains through the public media system to support their work.

The Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF) closed its doors in July 2006 when its primary purpose of advocating in Washington on behalf of independent filmmakers was no longer urgent. The consensus in looking back on that closure seems to be that after winning some key battles--like helping to establish the Independent Television Service (ITVS)--the organization didn't reinvent itself in ways that were valuable to its constituency, and the people running it (mostly filmmakers) from the board downward lost steam to push forward. Moreover, the information and access that AIVF was offering through its library became available for free on the Internet.

Similarly, the Film Arts Foundation ceased operations in 2008. Filmmakers no longer needed to rent equipment when they could buy good, inexpensive cameras that they could use over many shoots. Other programs like education, fiscal sponsorship and membership aren't enough to sustain an organization that has overhead and requires a staff to execute those programs. My experience has shown that few people equate a membership in a media arts organization with a donation to support the work of other members; people want benefits for themselves for their membership dollars like trade discounts, health and production insurance discounts and access to the small, insider world of filmmaking.

Funding is one way that organizations continue to be of service to filmmakers. This past year, two New York-based organizations, Renew Media and the Tribeca Film Institute, merged. The latter was founded in 2001 with a mission to "educate, entertain and inspire filmmakers and film lovers alike." Its tent-pole program, the Tribeca Film Festival, provides a platform for 10 days each April, but it would be tough for any festival without year-round programs to claim such a lofty mission. In merging with Renew Media, which was founded in 1990 as National Video Resources to make media arts grants on behalf of the Rockefeller Foundation, Tribeca now offers several grant programs--the Media Arts Fellowships, the TFI Sloan Filmmaker Fund and the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund.

"Gucci is very innovative in thinking about how to push support for documentary films," writes Tribeca Film Institute's CEO, Brian Newman, via e-mail. "We'll be announcing a new partnership to showcase doc films on the Academy shortlist in theaters here in New York. We're also soon announcing a program to showcase documentaries at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference--putting doc makers in the program for the first time in front of the most innovative audiences." Funding is a necessity, and while the process is made easier using the Internet to disseminate information to a wide range of filmmakers, that isn't really innovative and there is little evidence that investors, foundations or corporate givers want to use media arts organizations to vet projects for funding if they don't carry the Sundance or Tribeca brand.

Tribeca has also leveraged its supporters to launch Reframe, an online portal where audiences can find and purchase film that is either offered up by filmmakers or distributors or has been contributed by organizations. The site aims to make available films that haven't been available due to rights issues, cost to restore or digitize, or just poorly catalogued works. They offer free or low-cost digitizing through a partnership with Amazon and CreateSpace.

"Amazon is our first partner, and we are working to make deals with every platform so filmmakers, archives and distributors have a one-stop hub for moving their content to digital," says Newman. "But the most innovative aspect is that Reframe is not just an aggregator, but a community. We've built trusted source curation into the model so that you can find the quality media you want to find in the sea of videos online. We've also built community features--all the usual Web 2.0 stuff--so that people can tag content, share it, link to friends, take it to Facebook, etc., and build communities around these films."

Community is another buzz word that was bandied about in the post-mortem analysis of the AIVF and Film Arts Foundation situations. Filmmaking is collaborative from the creative process to production to distribution. With documentary, there is often another step of outreach, activism and/or education. Filmmakers want to use the power of media to mobilize viewers. MediaRights, a project of Arts Engine in New York, uses social action as a core guiding principle: "MediaRights maximizes the impact of social-issue documentaries and shorts."

The MediaRights website began as a database of documentary films compiled from the catalogs of several independent distributors. Recognizing back in 2000 that people couldn't watch documentaries if they didn't know they even existed, the online community grew out of a grassroots gathering around films and the issues they presented. As website software developed, some nonprofits were left in the dust technologically, but the MediaRights site evolved right along with the most cutting-edge sites.

Says Enrico Cullen, MediaRights' director of development and external affairs, "Right now we are focusing on the value that we bring to the Internet--that is, our curatorial talent and expertise. Many organizations seem to be trying to do everything. Their expertise is health care, but they think they should be making short viral videos, or creating a social network. We let other people do what they do best, and hone our talents, too." A quick perusal of the site offers a database of over 7,000 films, lists of recommended films via the Shortlist column, and action packs like one around a short called E-Waste by Ian Lynam from MediaRights' Media That Matters Film Festival, now in its eighth year. This online festival was a spot to see short films long before SnagFilms, Hulu or Jaman, to name a just a few commercial movie website destinations, and find ways to become involved in issues right on the same page as the film.

Both Tribeca and MediaRights acknowledge the importance of partnerships, and the trend can be seen with many organizations. When the Film Arts Foundation finally closed its doors, it had a membership of 1,500 filmmakers. In what amounted to another merger, the San Francisco Film Society took on all of the FAF members and kept some of the education programming that had been part of FAF's offerings. IndieWIRE reported that following the merger, the SFFS total membership rose to 4,000 in August 2008. Without skipping a beat, the Film Society announced a partnership with the San Francisco Film Commission to offer free production office space to independent filmmakers in the Bay Area.

Another recent partnership was forged in November 2008 with the British documentary festival BritDoc announcing that it would merge its exhibition program into the Sheffield Doc/Fest in Sheffield, England, creating one mega-British documentary event. The Channel 4 BritDoc Foundation, the nonprofit behind the festival, cites its mission "to develop, fund and distribute the work of the next generation of UK documentary filmmakers." Channel 4 is the founding sponsor, and work funded under the foundation may go on to be broadcast on the channel. Their plans include traveling with their films and creating an online viewing portal, as opposed to investing resources into a once-a-year event.

UK films lag behind the US in thinking about outreach beyond broadcast for documentary owing to the fact that funding can be secured via government and commercial outlets, as opposed to issue-oriented foundations. The Channel 4 BritDoc Foundation is blazing a trail for UK docs working with nonprofit partners like US-based Working Films and Creative Capital, which have honed outreach and built sustainable careers in the arts. The foundation is also working with corporate partners like Stella Artois and Nokia, who see funding docs as "a great way for brands to communicate what matters to them and what they stand for." The foundation also recently announced that it would partner with the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program to bring a new documentary pitching program, The Good Pitch, to Hot Docs and SilverDocs this year. The Good Pitch is focused on social-issue documentaries and is also directed at NGOs, charities, foundations, campaigns, advertising agencies and media.

With all of the possibility and uncertainty, broaching topics of innovation and what can happen over the Internet is still an intimidating topic to many in the filmmaking community. Newman cites an example: "We could theoretically have films on Reframe tagged to the clip level, searchable by visual search, and filmmakers could license clips for their own films from the system without ever speaking to the original filmmaker. Maybe they would pay based on how many times their film was then watched instead of a flat rate up front. This would help everyone, but the same filmmakers it could help are (rightfully) scared about piracy or just not being paid back, so there's a resistance to what could happen."

Where is the future heading? "I think we're in a real period of innovation for short-form video, a renaissance of creativity," Cullen observes. "It will be great to see where art and communication go in the next few years as online video becomes ubiquitous and easier to view." On an organizational level, more die-off and merging might have to occur as funding dollars shrink. There is a chasm between what filmmakers and funders are looking for from nonprofits. The organizations that are surviving are those that can shape their programs and services to be useful to both sides of that chasm.


Agnes Varnum is a freelance writer and communications manager at the Austin Film Society.