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Reinvention at Independent Film Week: 'Hollow,' Media Center, Doc Pitching Among the Highlights

By Addie Morfoot

IFP's Independent Film Week, which ran September 15 through 19 in New York City, offered arguably its most diverse schedule in recent years. Blame it on the shifting landscape of independent film, or the increase in funding and distribution opportunities for documentaries—either way, the conference gave attendees the chance to fully understand how to stand out in an overcrowded marketplace. Held at the New York Public Library's Bruno Walter Auditorium at Lincoln Center, the annual conference was divided into five, day-long categories: "Future Forward"; "The Truth About Non-Fiction"; "Crafting a Career"; "#ArtistServices Workshop NYC Presented by Sundance Institute"; and "Re:Invent."

Leviathan co-director Lucien Castaing-Taylor delivered a keynote speech to close out Monday's slate of panels, which focused on hottest issues in the documentary genre.  The panel "A Conversation with Documentary Subjects" included Cutie & The Boxer director Zachary Heinzerling and subject Ushio Shinohara, as well as American Promise directors/subjects Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson. A case study on Penny Lane's Our Nixon, released on television and in theaters last month by CNN Films and Cinedigm, was also part of the day's program.

Thursday's Re:Invent panels also focused on a wide range of documentary topics, including discussions about incorporating new technologies and alternative storytelling platforms into the genre.

The day kicked off with a conversation about the interactive documentary Hollow, which launched on June 20 and was featured on The New York Times Op-Docs site. The project was awarded a new media grant from Tribeca Film Institute.

Director/producer Elaine McMillion, co-producer/art director Jeff Soyk and technical director/senior developer Robert Hall discussed the community participatory project with Sarah Kramer, chief content officer at Imprint, who moderated the discussion.

Boston-based McMillion explained that she had originally planned to make a one-off about the future of McDowell County, a West Virginia-based rural community that is suffering from economic turmoil and population decay.

 "I grew up close to McDowell County, but I'd never actually been there," McMillion said. "Everyone likes to paint McDowell as the poster child for all things bad, so when the [news media] talks about teen pregnancy and drug overdoses, they go to McDowell and put the locals' faces on [the screen]. Then everyone feels good about themselves because we aren't them. I really wanted to turn [that image] on its head. I was coming from a linear storytelling background, so I went there with the idea to make a film. But within several hours of being there and meeting all the different people, I knew it was not going to be a [single] film. It needed to include a lot of stories, data and participation from the community."


The home page for Hollow, an interactive documentary by director/producer Elaine McMillion

Since the 1950s, McDowell County has lost 80 percent of its population. According to the project's official website, "Demographers studying population in West Virginia estimate that the 10 communities that make up McDowell Count are just years away from extinction."

Using personal documentary video portraits, user-generated content, interactive data, photography, soundscapes and grassroots mapping on an HTML5 website, McMillion and her team designed Hollow to thoroughly document the struggles of community locals  to save their county. In addition, numerous members of the community collaborated with the Hollow team on 20 of the 50 short documentaries featured on the project's site, in hopes of empowering the community to work together for a better future.

Soyk admitted that creating the comprehensive site was initially a struggle, due to geographical distance between members of the team. "We found some technology tools that helped us virtually be together, but I wouldn't recommend that," Soyk explained. "If you are going to create an interactive project with [multiple people], find space to get together."

Luckily for Soyk and fellow independent filmmakers, IFP's executive director, Joana Vicente, introduced a space for filmmakers to do just that—get together and collaborate. The Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment and IFP recently partnered to create Made in New York Media Center,  a 20,000- square-foot facility based in the DUMBO section of Brooklyn. The Center opens next month.


A rendering of IFP's Made in New York Media Center

The panel that explained the Made in New York Media Center included Vicente, as well as Brent Hoff, the Center's director of programming; Nicholas Fortugno, chief creative officer at Playmatics; Brad Hargreaves, General Assembly co-founder; and Eugene Hernandez, director of digital strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, who served as moderator.

Hoff, who had relocated to New York City from San Francisco for the job, explained that the new facility will be dedicated to assisting storytellers get their work done by offering co-working opportunities and continuing education, and by connecting artists to technologists, entrepreneurs and industry resources.

 "It's a space for collaboration," Vicente added. "It's all about storytelling. Whether you are telling your story through an app, film, video, a game—you should become a member of the Center. What I think is really unique is not just the focus on storytelling and how we are bringing all of these [interesting people together], but we are also supplementing it with an educational program."

Facilities open to the public include an education center, featuring multiple classrooms designed to host an array of programs such as hands-on workshops, live demonstrations and expert seminars. Hoff said he hopes to bring a "writing room" class/seminar featuring various film and television writers at work.

Media Center members at various levels of participation can take advantage of an incubator space, designed to foster creation and collaboration between New York City's emerging storytellers, innovators and businesses; and community and co-working spaces, reserved for both individual day use on a first-come, first-served basis. The facilities also include conference rooms, editing rooms and a video lounge.

The Thursday lineup also included the "Art of the Documentary Pitch" panel. Industry executives fielding pitches included  Cynthia Kane, senior producer of documentaries at Al Jazeera America; Kathryn Lo, director of program development for independent film at PBS and PBS Plus; and Nancy Abraham, HBO's senior vice president for documentary programming. After listening to each two-minute pitch, the panelists offered feedback while also providing some insight into the decision-making processes at their respective channels.


The Art of the Documentary Pitch panelists, left to right: Nancy Abraham, HBO; Kathryn Lo, PBS; Cynthia Kane, Al Jazeera America. Photo: Aisha Singleton

Kane advised each filmmaker after their 120-second pitch to "slow down, take a breath" and maintain eye contact with the panelists. "People are just inundated with information these days," Lo added. "I think if you get into the story without getting into the themes, you are going to be able to hook me."


Addie Morfoot writes about the entertainment industry for Daily Variety, The Wall Street Journal and Adweek. She has also written for The New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, and Marie Claire. She holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School.