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New & Improved! IFP Market now Even More Doc-Friendly

By Harriette Yahr

The Independent Film Project (IFP) Market, held in New York City in September, has reinvented itself. Gone are the circus-like antics to recruit viewers into screenings. Absent is the excess of projects diluting the overall quality. Today's IFP Market has changed: it's streamlined, more focused. And it's a better place than ever to bring your documentary, at whatever stage you are in.

Veteran market buyer Stephen Kral of Seventh Art Releasing notes the changes this way: "For years the market has been a good place to bring your doc; now it's an excellent place. Docs are getting better all the time, and the programming switch makes a better home for those better projects."

Changes in programming have reduced the number of projects at the market, from 500 to 200. And since completed fiction features have been cut from the program, and 50 of the total projects are fiction scripts, the overall "feel" of the market is definitely documentary.

The market has positioned itself as a strong works-in-progress venue; additionally, doc shorts and completed doc features are screened. Two forums house documentaries: No Borders and Spotlight on Documentaries. No Borders (officially called the No Borders International Co-Production Market) is a separate section of the general market, and a hard-to-beat opportunity for both fiction and doc filmmakers; individual networking meeting are pre-arranged with international broadcasters, buyers and the like.

In order to qualify for consideration for No Borders, a film must have a producer with a track record and at least 20 percent of funding in place, and must not have completed principal photography. Spotlight on Documentaries also affords excellent opportunities. Plenty of accomplished filmmakers participate in that forum; perhaps they could not qualify for No Borders because their film was already completed or not enough money was in place.

A perfect example is filmmaker Paul Rachman, who brought his work-in-progress doc American Hardcore: A Tribal History to Spotlight. Though he certainly had experience, compelling subject matter and available clips, there was no money attached by application deadline. Spotlight, to him, was a place to get his film into the industry's consciousness. He cites positive press, great feedback and a host of industry interest as representative of a market experience that could not have been better. Completed films in Spotlight included Tupperware! by Laurie Kahn-Leavitt and Neverland: The Rise and Fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army by Robert Stone.

Projects at No Borders fell into various stages of production, from treatments to near completion. Judith Helfand and Dan Gold, of Blue Vinyl fame, brought their promising new film, Melting Planet, to No Borders. The film, a "toxic comedy about global warming," is in its budding stages. Further along the production line—having completed about half of principle photography—was the well-received The Dog by producer/director team Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren. Closest to completion, and generating huge amounts of buzz-including the interest of Nick Fraser from BBC's Storyville—was Shakespeare Behind Bars, directed by Hank Rogerson. 

A healthy dose of documentary panels complemented the screenings. In Documentaries: a Buyer's Perspective on What's Hot, international broadcasters sounded off about their frustration with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. "The new academy rules are a nightmare for us European broadcasters," states Fraser, referencing a blackout period imposed by the academy for nominated films that restricts the ability of commissioning editors to program films in a timely fashion. "It goes like this: We invest early in American films. We are happy when they receive recognition in the US. We want them to secure Oscar nominations. But this means a wait of up to a year while they fulfill the criteria by being exhibited in theaters. When the rules were drafted, no one paused to think of us. We hope they can be changed."

Panel Moderator Jan Rofekamp of Films Transit, a leading distributor of docs, added specifics to this problematic issue. He recently made a policy change, and now will wait to launch films into the international marketplace until after the no-broadcast embargo is over. Clearly from the tone of the panel, doc makers need to weigh the advantages of seeking an Oscar: International broadcasters (where the money and opportunity are) may lose interest, a hot topic may lose its timeliness or one of many other ready-to-broadcast films may replace its would-be spot on the air.

Ancillary media outlets and activist doc makers shared their perspectives in Documentaries: Making an Impact. Panel member Nicole Bentacourt of addressed "impact," pointing out the reality that broadcast is not the only way to get your film into the world. "Lots of films make a difference in peoples' lives, and sometimes even change public policy because the filmmakers developed a grassroots distribution and outreach plan," said Bentacourt. Also explored on the panel was the need for filmmakers to be actively involved in securing public space on the airwaves. Several strategies towards this end were offered up, including the websites,, and

Closing out market week was an awards ceremony. New this year was the documentary completion prize, a $10,000 cash award, which went to Gretchen Berland and Mike Majoros' Rolling, a compelling film told from the perspective of its wheelchair-bound subjects.

The IFP Market has always been what you make of it. Recent programming changes make it an easier place to make a more productive time of it—especially for filmmakers, buyers and even festival programmers. As Brian Newman, executive director of the Atlanta Film Festival put it, "The market has really come into its own as a market for documentaries." The submission period for the 26th Annual IFP Market opens in May 2004.


Harriette Yahr is a filmmaker and writer, and has taught film in universities and workshops. This past fall, she conducted a guest lecture at Dartmouth College. Her recent short film, Baker's Men, is airing on the Sundance Channel.