Skip to main content

It's a Buyer's Market: Independent Film Week Offers Strategies for Survival

By Jody Arlington

In an era when everyone is trying to make sense of the new independent film landscape, the 31st edition of the Independent Feature Project (IFP)'s Independent Film Week (IFW), which ran September 19 to 24, in New York City, shined a light on the processes, pitfalls, partnerships and promising results for the filmmaker ready and able to master multiple disciplines. One could argue this year's event actually kicked off on September 18, with Eugene Hernandez' comprehensive historical overview of IFP in indieWire, highlighting the organization's place in the independent film pantheon. It was the perfect précis to the week, spotlighting IFP's accomplishments, evolution, and smart adaptive facility to meeting the ever-changing needs of today's filmmakers. IFP uniquely provides the right counsel and connections for works-in-progress, through career-spanning creative and business relationships, while providing a realistic state-of-play of the industry.  

IFP's Filmmaker Conference & Spotlight on Documentaries

The Fashion Institute of Technology was bustling, as the usual icons of the industry--producers, funders, distributors, broadcasters, sales agents, festival programmers and others--shared their wisdom on what filmmakers need to do for their projects to succeed. The Filmmaker Conference featured daily back-to-back panels ranging from the nuts and bolts of production, to exhibition and sales, to outreach and crowd-sourcing.  Wednesday's day-long documentary focal, "The Truth About Non-Fiction," provided insights on funding, audience development and emerging trends. Meanwhile, hundreds of other buyers, commissioning and sales agents bunkered down with filmmakers in the Project Forum, for highly targeted matchmaking courtesy of the IFP team. The week saw alliances made, presentations of artistically excellent works-in-progress, and a healthy dissection of the independent film environment: It's a buyer's market, be prepared to do everything, here's how. Milton Tabbot, IFP's senior programmer--and the heart and soul of IFP's documentary program--balances the doom and gloom prognosticators against the "great new world" optimists by taking a more philosophical view, referencing Jonathan Demme's oft-quoted quip, "La Luta Continua," and Spike Lee's "by any means necessary": The work has always been hard, is hard, and will always be hard, but the struggle endures and great films are being made and seen. With so many industry visionaries offering commandments on distribution, outreach and other aspects of filmmaking, I asked Tabbot for his as they relate to project inception:

  • Commandment One: Be very familiar with other works in your subject area.
  • Commandment Two: Beware of overworked subject areas.
  • Commandment Three: Inarticulating your project, make sure your description reflects what you have to show on screen.

Tabbot, a 15-year veteran of IFP, has also commented that one of the more rewarding aspects of his job is both seeing a large number of veteran documentarians working at such a high level artistically, and discovering new works from emerging filmmakers. The great equalizer for veterans and neophytes alike is that they all start from scratch when presenting new work in Independent Film Week's signature program, the Project Forum.  Of the 117 projects selected in the Emerging Narrative, No Borders and Spotlight on Documentaries sections, 80 were documentaries. There was an even split of emerging to veteran entrants this year, with 40 percent alumni who had attended previously with other projects.

Several veteran projects created waves if not raves, including Fame High, directed and produced by Scott Hamilton Kennedy (The Garden); In The Matter of Cha Jung Hee, directed by Deann Borshay Liem; Poor Consuelo Conquers the World, directed by Peter Friedman (Silverlake Life; Mana: Beyond Belief); Magic Camp, directed by Judd Ehrlich (Run for Your Life; Mayor of the West Side); Hungry in America, directed by Kristi Jacobson (Toots) and Lori Silverbush (On The Outs); and Earth Camp One, directed by Jennie Livingston (Paris Is Burning).

Popular projects from emerging filmmakers, many of whom have been toiling on shorts and work-for-hire productions, included Tyler Measom and Jennilyn Merten's Sons of Perdition; Cameron Yates' The Canal Street Madam; and Yael Luttwak's My Favorite Neoconservative

Other projects to keep an eye out for include Nina Davenport's Sequel to Always A Bridesmaid (working title) and Queen of the Sun, directed and produced by Taggart Siegel (The Real Dirt on Farmer John).

What is Independent Film Week like for a first-time filmmaker? Fambul Tok director Sara Terry notes, "As a first-time filmmaker, I wasn't sure what to expect, although the way IFW is set up--with industry people actually asking to meet you--is great. You go into meetings knowing that somebody already has an interest in what you're doing. We met with top programmers for national and international TV, as well as several festivals, and the feedback was strong. We're now in serious conversations that could lead to substantial financial support to finish the film. To have that kind of access to so many key players in the doc world, all in one place over one week, is incredible."

The Good Pitch

IFP hosted the third and final installment this year in North America of The Good Pitch, a newly-evolved pitching forum that has the documentary cognoscenti abuzz. Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundations' Jess Search, Katie Bradford, Elise McCave, Beadie Finzi and Maxyne Franklin; outreach impresario Sandi DuBowski; and many others from Sundance Institute and Working Films ensured that this forum reflected the best strategy and outcomes for the participating films. Having concluded its North American tour, The Good Pitch team is now tallying accomplishments since convening at Hot Docs and SILVERDOCS earlier this year. The team contacted over 1,700 foundations, philanthropists, grantmaking associations, leading NGOs and nonprofits, broadcasters, media funders, traditional and digital media platforms, technology innovators, and federal, state and local governments, inviting them to convene and form alliances around social justice films. Over 60 documentary projects applied, with 21 projects selected, and filmmakers presented their work to over 300 organizations. The sessions should be required viewing--to see what it looks like when the right mission-match occurs, and hear how different entities respond to the material, sometimes in surprising ways.

The Good Pitch team will be tracking results and provide annual updates on the selected films as they make their way through production, distribution and outreach campaigns.  Several concrete partnerships were forged: 

  • At Hot Docs, Gucci Tribeca Fund came on board with Beth Murphy's The Promise of Freedom.
  • At SILVERDOCS, Art Stevens of the Calvert Foundation pledged $10,000 for an outreach campaign for Megan Gelstein's Green Shall Overcome, and he is now working on a fundraiser for the project. 
  • SILVERDOCS also saw Debra Anderson's sale of Split Estate to Discovery's Planet Green, while the Hungry in America team established NGO partnerships that can be firmlycounted in the "now married" column. Executive Producer Ryan Harrington noted that the anti-hunger NGOs assembled at SILVERDOCS raised $350,000 in funds for the film since June.
  • Since their pitch at SILVERDOCS, Joe Wilson and Dean Hammer, producers of Out on the Silence, have raised $150,000 in outreach funds. 
  • At IFW, at the conclusion of Michael L. Brown's pitch for 25 to Life,Catherine Olsen of CBC leaped up from the audience to commit to a pre-buy. While it is too soon to capture IFW results in full, everyone will be watching to see what's next with this dynamic group.

Dan Cogan of Impact Partners noted that an unexpected benefit of the Good Pitch process has been the building of a community among funders. Similarly, Greenpeace's Pablo Mathiason underscored the important advantage to seeing new works early in development for campaign building. There is talk that the pitching forum will repeat in 2010, which is exciting news for the social issue documentary community.

While no one knows what is in store in the year to come--and which films will soar or flail--nor which festivals, distributors, critics, broadcasters or theaters will thrive, we do know we will see and hear the state-of-play for documentary from the industry's brightest--with their strategies for survival--at IFP's Independent Film Week.

Jody Arlington is managing partner of PR Collaborative and co-founder of The Impact Arts + Film Fund.