FILMMAKERS CHATTING AT INDEPENDENT FILM WEEK. PHOTO BY: HORST DIETER BAUM.
Perhaps it's because we're all, collectively and individually, in the midst of a tough year that the tone and timbre of this year's Independent Film Week Project Forum and concurrent Independent Filmmaker Conference were a bit subdued and pared-down. That's not to say that there weren't healthy doses of inspiration, optimism, intense focus, grace and raucous humor. But that came largely from the work on display and from the camaraderie and mutual support of the filmmakers doing battle to finish and release their narrative and nonfiction cinematic offerings. Even the ethos of the Good Pitch, the closest thing to a formal pitch forum and new to the IFW this year, is beneficent, collaborative and means to help push the role of the artist/filmmaker to new heights of impact and exposure. It aims to showcase the burgeoning maturity and business savvy of today's independent filmmaker and to help bring new partnership models to bear by matching filmmakers and organizations. In effect, this collaboration between the UK-based Channel 4 BRITDOC Foundation and the Sundance Film Institute simultaneously empowers the mission of the artist to make strong, uncompromising, relevant work and that of the organizations trying to advocate for a more-just world.
The 117 works-in-progress projects that made it into this year's exclusive enclave (only about 18 percent of submissions are accepted) are by filmmakers who are highly educated about the industry and about doing business within the confines of a very small pool. And what each and every one of these filmmakers never loses sight of, despite all the pressures of finding and building their own audience on top of everything else they have to do, is the creative imperative to make good movies. Without that, the rest is merely dross.
Industry leaders, too, are pulling their weight and attempting to do what they can to make that pool a bit more generous, a more easily traversable environment. These are the people who sit in meeting after meeting, advising and guiding. However the burden of self-funding one's project through rough-cut assembly (or beyond) is the norm these days and the more experienced filmmakers know that. While their projects might be closely tracked from preproduction stage, an acquisition or distribution deal is just not going to happen until the film is pretty much finished — if one is willing to accept the rather shoddy deals that are being offered right now. Most are choosing almost complete DIY models at this juncture having been mentored by the likes of a Gary Hustwit (Helvetica, Objectified) or a Jon Reiss (director of Bomb It and author of Think Outside the Box Office: The Ultimate Guide to Film Distribution and Marketing in the Digital Era), and many others who are blogging and tweeting and Facebooking their way along to a great deal of success. On almost every conference panel, there were oftentimes quite comedic showdowns between the DIYers and the more traditional companies still hanging in there.
From doing a casual poll amongst the participating filmmakers in the No Borders International Co-Production Market and the Spotlight on Documentaries, the general consensus was that only after several years of development, fundraising, begging, borrowing, stealing and a fully-assembled rough cut could be shown, was there any substantive interest on the part of most financiers, broadcasters and distributors, with very few exceptions. With skeleton crews and very little resources themselves, the industry participants on the other side of the divide are very limited in what they can offer. That's not going to change for the foreseeable future. Everyone seems to accept that and jumps into the fray anyway, or they wouldn't be attending an event like this in the first place.
Ryan Knighton, creator and screenwriter of the narrative film Cockeyed, a darkly comedic true story to be directed by Jodie Foster, of his own experience of slowly going blind while trying to help his severely addicted brother, told me, "The IFP has left me enamored of the word 'despite.' You hear it a bunch around here. And when I catch that word in the air, I know there is innovation, tenacity and muscle. Hope. Films are getting made — wait for it — despite it all."
Director and founder of Principle Pictures, Beth Murphy (Beyond Belief), who made her second appearance at the Good Pitch here in New York City with What Tomorrow Brings, a self-funded project of a year spent at the Zabuli Afghan girls' school, told me that in a meeting with former ARTE executive Christoph Jörg, who was at IFW looking for co-productions for his new company, "He marveled at all the crazy American filmmakers he is meeting who charge ahead with their projects — even when there isn't a penny to produce them. The one thing everyone is talking about here is the constant refrain we are hearing from programming execs, 'Come back when you have a rough cut.' There's no question people are feeling the pinch."
Rebecca Richman Cohen's documentary War Don Don, about the war crimes trial of Issa Sesay in Sierra Leone, a project that is creating a tremendous amount of buzz and excitement, says, "After three years of working on a film that seemed for a time to be moving as slowly as the international war crimes trial it was profiling, IFW gave a jump start to reaching out to funders, festivals, strategists and distributors. As anticipated, the word back from most of the meetings was, 'Can't wait to see the rough cut.' But now that we have a rough cut, those words are exciting. When someone requests a meeting and tells us that they're looking forward to screening our film, I'm satisfied that people will take our cut seriously. Now all we have to do is make a really good film. Back to work."