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Industry Beat

by Anthony Kaufman

Paradigm Shift: The Current State of Development Labs

The Summer Labs at Sundance ResortThe Summer Labs at Sundance Resort, photo by Jonathan Hickerson

in Columns, Issues
on Sep 20, 2023

When the Tribeca Film Institute (TFI) announced in spring 2020 that they would shutter, many in the independent film community were shocked. For 17 years, TFI had supported hundreds of filmmakers and projects, including underrepresented artists, through its Tribeca All Access program, as well as Latin American filmmakers and VR visionaries. At the time, TFI’s closure appeared to be the result of a unique case of pandemic skittishness combined with its parent organization’s increasingly for-profit ambitions. Rather than an outlier, it may have been a sign of things to come. Given the lingering effects of the COVID era and the consolidation of media companies, it’s not only a challenging moment for the art-film business, but a precarious time for the nurturing of artists who are its future. 

“It’s a symptom across the board of all our artist organizations chasing the money,” says Brian Newman, a strategic consultant and former CEO of TFI. “Corporate sponsors are more attracted to big public-facing things, like film festivals and awards shows, unlike hard-to-quantify filmmaker development initiatives.”

Every organization is different, of course. But over the past year, the cutbacks across several filmmaker-driven nonprofits have been stark. The Gotham Film & Media Institute (which publishes this magazine and until its 2021 name change had been supporting filmmakers as the Independent Filmmaker Project since 1979) recently placed its Documentary Feature Lab, Fiction Feature Lab and TV Series Lab on hiatus. And because of the WGA and SAG strikes, The Gotham paused its Project Market and laid off two long-time staffers.

Meanwhile, at the Sundance Institute, the Film Music Program, Composer Program, Theater Program, New Frontiers Lab and Creative Distribution Initiative have been eliminated in recent years. And, as a result of the high cost of running its labs, Sundance has reduced its noteworthy Directing Lab from four weeks to two, and the second part of its much-coveted Screenwriting Lab is now done online. 

“I believe that every company and organization in the industry has had to streamline and be more efficient in their budgets, programs/offerings and staffing, and the Sundance Institute is no exception,” says Michelle Satter, Sundance Institute’s founding senior director of artist programs. “With a tough climate,” adds Sundance Institute’s head of partnerships Mary Sadeghy, “we have had to examine how we produce our labs and reduce our costs.” 

According to Film Independent’s executive director Josh Welsh, all of their programs are continuing, with the exception of a five-week Directing Lab that was paused during COVID and replaced with a three-day Episodic Directing Intensive, underwritten by the National Endowment of the Arts. While Welsh paints a relatively rosy picture of its other programs—with initiatives funded by the U.S. State Department (Global MediaMakers), Netflix (Amplifier Fellowship for Black storytellers) and Disney and Searchlight (Imaginar, a new Latinx producers residency)—he also acknowledges, “I freak out a lot.” 

“My biggest concern has to do with monopolization and mergers and acquisitions,” says Welsh. “When there are fewer companies, which there are every year, there are fewer that can fund what we do, and it’s a concerning sign [of] the direction things are going.”

One industry insider who works to bring in corporate sponsorships admits, “People like me have to work harder right now to find money to replace those companies that are gone or are being more careful and choosy.”

According to Newman, who consults with major brands on their corporate social responsibility initiatives, those companies “might have supported a lab in the past, but now they’re just funding a filmmaker to make a movie about a particular issue or story that resonates with their brand.”

The Gotham Film & Media Institute is also heavily reliant on corporate sponsors, acknowledges executive director Jeff Sharp. But he says The Gotham’s recent lab pauses had less to do with funding issues and more to do with avoiding the repetition of doing the types of labs other organizations already offered.

“We really wanted to support not just individual projects, but the overall careers of artists,” he says, pointing to its HBO-funded Documentary Development Initiative, which gives each member of its cohort $50,000. 

While certain corporate giving remains consistent at some organizations, such funding—tied to individual programs—is typically a year-to-year ask, which doesn’t allow for long-term planning or the sustainable funding of operating budgets. To that end, The Gotham is looking to diversify its funding with more philanthropic support, according to Sharp, so it is not overly reliant on corporations’ shifting funding mandates. 

The capriciousness of corporate funding recently hit the Points North Institute, the Maine-based organization that is also home to the Camden International Film Festival, which had to eliminate one of its signature programs, a five-day filmmaker retreat, after sponsor CNN Films downsized. And once Showtime Documentary Films essentially disappeared after merging with MTV earlier this year, Points North had to scramble to find a new foundation sponsor, the deNovo Initiative, to fund its Points North Fellowship. Says Points North’s program director Sean Flynn, “We’re hoping to find more sustainable funding for these programs through foundation partnerships.”

Producer Amy Hobby, former executive director of the Tribeca Film Institute, says the loss of organizations like TFI and reductions at other organizations are “a big loss,” but these slowdowns may have created space for more grassroots programs that are “community-driven and from the ground up. They might not be as visible or well funded, but I wonder whether this is a better, more empowering way forward.”

Stanley Nelson’s Firelight Media, for example, claims to be the “preeminent funder for BIPOC non-fiction filmmakers” and houses various labs, from its flagship 18-month documentary lab to regional labs to programs for investigative documentary and research and development. According to the organization, Firelight benefits from general operating support from major foundations, such as Ford, MacArthur and Open Society, that has remained “fairly consistent.” Another longstanding nonprofit, Chicken & Egg—which has seen steady support through individual and family foundations—runs its signature (Egg)celerator Lab, which gives funding and support to self-identifying women and nonbinary directors working on their first or second feature documentaries. 

New models and micro-organizations are also sprouting up. Founded and entirely staffed by three people (Martha Gregory, Sean Weiner and Arnos Mokros) working part-time, the recently launched UFO (Untitled Film Organization) provides new development opportunities, including a one-month residency in the Catskills for artists’ families (providing free childcare) and an 18-month Short Film Lab housed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which provides budgets, mentorship and funding of $10,000 each to shorts filmmakers. “With all the layoffs and cutbacks, the nonprofit space seems daunting,” says Weiner, “so we’re trying to be small and nimble enough to try new things.” UFO has no plans for a brick-and-mortar space, partnering instead with existing institutions to keep its overall budget low, “recognizing funders will come and go,” adds Weiner.

Abby Sun, director of artist programs and editorial at the International Documentary Association, as well as a curator and a critic, has problems with the “project-specific” nature of many lab programs, so she’s interested in pioneering new, more holistic approaches.

“What is dissatisfying in that model is that it responds to the perceived demands of the market, but that information is already a couple years old,” she says. “And there are always horror stories about lab advisors trying to make filmmakers’ work more sellable or marketable rather than helping them to develop their practice.”

In response, Sun and IDA director of funds and advocacy Keisha Knight put together two practice-based “anti-labs”: one at IDA Experimental Realities, an in-person convening funded by the Andy Warhol Foundation, where practitioners developed “impossible projects,” she says, and Sentient.Art.Film’s year-long Line of Sight Fellowship, which paired mentors and filmmakers in mutually funded and beneficial ways “outside of market pressures.”

Such apprenticeship and workforce development programs are usually left out of more industry-focused, project-oriented programs. In contrast, artist-focused organizations such as Creative Capital have continued to provide grants and career support for individual creators, which aligns more with Sun’s approach. “We’re having conversations now about how we consider an artist as an entire human being that has to be supported over time rather than a viable project,” she says. “The understanding of the value of artists has to change by those who are financing these programs.”

Indeed, one of the largest issues facing creators who are in development programs these days is what’s at the end of the pipeline: a dysfunctional marketplace, with fewer distribution options for independent projects and exploitative business practices that have led to one of the longest entertainment strikes in the entertainment industry. Netflix’s $100 million Fund for Creative Equity has helped fund a lot of these filmmaker support programs, but there remain persistent systemic issues for indies if the company isn’t acquiring independent projects or adhering to equitable labor practices for guild members.

“The system has collapsed,” says Hobby, who suggests that development programs must integrate discussions of exhibition and distribution. “That is the biggest pivot that has to happen throughout these labs.”

To partially answer that need while acknowledging “the difficulties in the business,” Satter points to Sundance Institute’s new program, ELEVATE, a year-round online professional development track that offers career guidance to the artists selected for their programs and fellowships. 

Still, Sun wonders whether a “false promise is being sold to filmmakers,” considering “the toothlessness of a lot of these programs being able to get the selected talent into industry spaces.” One filmmaker who has participated in several such programs shares Sun’s ambivalence. “The thing that concerns me is if some of these development labs are in many ways a distraction from the artistic practice itself,” he says. “Of course, it’s a hugely important part of the ecosystem,” he adds, pointing to the external validation that comes with acceptance. “But it’s depressing when you realize it still may not go anywhere, and maybe you should’ve made a cheaper film in the meantime.”

For a select few creators, programs such as these have undoubtedly been and continue to be a vital launchpad. Consider breakouts such as Chloé Zhao, Nikyatu Jusu and Raven Jackson, whose careers all got a boost through these labs and support networks. Then again, as another filmmaker says, “I’ve known a few people who have gone through the Sundance Labs but haven’t gotten into Sundance.”

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