BIZ: IFFCON 2000 Makes Deals Up Close and Personal
by Carl Russo
In the alphabet soup of high-profile film biz gatherings, San Francisco's IFFCON (International Film Financing Conference) stands out as a leading pitching post for independent filmmakers in search of a deal. The three-day rush of adrenaline that connected dozens of eager producers with industry heavyweights, closed January 16 with the U.S premiere of Jeremy Podeswa's "The Five Senses," the celebrated Canadian feature that germinated at IFFCON and debuted at Cannes 1999.
"It's access to people that I wouldn't normally get in a casual atmosphere," explained producer Irene Turner, who was accepted for private meetings with Alliance Atlantic Acquisitions VP Charlotte Mickie and other buyers and distributors. "The best moments are the informal ones, sitting and chatting and getting to know someone face-to-face," said Turner, whose quirky, coming-of-age project "Twist in the Wind" is starting from zero. "You get to talk to very influential people as a peer as opposed to some monolithic person who sits in an office you never get to see."
IFFCON's founder and Executive Director Wendy Braitman wants to keep it that way. "In our first year we had 60 producers; now we have 65 seven years later, and that's a level at which we don't want to grow," she told indieWIRE. "I don't ever see this as a really big conference because I think that would really take away from its strength, which is its intimacy."
Intimacy was key as evidenced by the up-close and personal contact available on January 14's "Open Day" at SF's Yerba Buena Center, where a series of panel discussions were capped by a booze 'n' schmooze fest, all open to the paying public. Filmmakers of many stripes were treated to a powerhouse keynote address by studio-exec-turned-writer Jack Lechner, who announced the death of "the nice little movie." Ticking off a litany of market pressures -- including the mainstreaming of arthouse fare and a glut of derivative independent films -- he said the rules have changed and warned, "There's real money at stake now. And that makes people cautious." Lechner urged writers to eschew formula and instead answer Cocteau's immortal plea, "Astonish me."
Lechner's exhortations were on the lips of many of the stellar panelists assembled for a full day of discussions while selected producers got their private meetings. "Step by Step: A Walking Tour through Film Financing" offered nuts-and-bolts advice from moderator Michelle Byrd (IFP), Nancy Abraham (HBO), Matt Brodlie (Miramax) and other experts. Wouter Barendrecht (Fortissimo) stressed the importance of attaching a sales agent early in the project, "Otherwise it's very hard to correct the image of a film after it's first been launched."
The digital revolution was hotly debated during "Funding the Future: The Digital Wave." "We cannot look to the industry to tell us how to use it, how to work with it to finance our films, nor how to distribute our works!" shouted moderator Marc Smolowitz of SF's Turbulent Arts. "The notion of gatekeepers gets demolished and we all have the key." The dialog revolved around the changing distinctions between production and distribution, with opinions expressed by Peter Broderick (Next Wave), Rodger Raderman (IFILM.net) and Lynn Hershman ("Conceiving Ada"). Jason Kliot (Open City/Blow Up) weighed in with his struggles to produce the DV feature "Chuck and Buck," premiering at Sundance this week.
The focus of the day was really The Pitch, illuminated by the discussion "Pitch Perfect: How to Sell Your Idea," which included panelists Marcus Hu (Strand Releasing), Caroline Kaplan (Independent Film Channel), Jacquie Lawrence (Channel 4), Joe Pichirallo (Fox Searchlight) and moderator Jonathan King (Laurence Mark Productions). Attendees' names were drawn from a hat and a series of filmmakers were called to the mic to deliver their nervous spiels. Projects ranged from an intriguing mind/body-swap sci-fi script to an indecipherable love story idea, but each received kindly pointers from the panel.
Other sessions during the weekend included a discussion about financing with international television as well as case study walk-throughs on the development of "The Five Senses" and Jennifer Fox's PBS doc series, "An American Story."
With the recent addition of co-director Corey Tong, who heads up IFFCON's Asia-Pacific Partnership, the confab has become an important forum for Pacific Rim film development. A contingent of Asian filmmakers were present for the Directors Film Series sidebar at the Kabuki Theater, which included Indian director Murali Nair. His political satire "The Throne of Death," which nabbed the Camera d'Or for first feature at Cannes 1999, opened the four-day fest January 13. Also screened were Ning Ying's "On the Beat" (China), Wang Guangli's "Maiden Work" (China), and Park Kwang-Su's "A Single Spark" (Korea).
New Zealand also had a presence this year with a series of projects in various stages of development, represented by Trevor Haysom, Philippa Campbell and Annie Goldson.
Work and play melded the night of January 15 as filmmakers, execs and hangers-on rubbed elbows and swilled martinis at the chichi Foreign Cinema Restaurant in SF's Mission District, followed by a raucous dance party at the subterranean lesbian Coco Club.
Along for the ride was Anne Makepeace, the writer/director/producer of "Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians," a doc about the famous photographer of Native Americans. Although her film will debut January 21 at Sundance, followed by a Fall broadcast on PBS' "American Masters," she still found IFFCON 2000 to be a valuable experience. "I'm still looking for foreign distribution, and also I've been out of the loop for a couple of years while I've been buried in this project," Makepeace told indieWIRE. "I want to reconnect with filmmakers and with funding sources and this is a great place to do it."
The groovy club beats competed with a cacophony of excited voices as indies swapped tales of their private meetings earlier that day. Canadian filmmaker Cassandra Nicolaou came to town with her offbeat script "Arcade," about a teenage girl who becomes romantically stimulated by a Space Invaders video game. Rather than solicit mini-majors like Fox Searchlight or Fine Line, Nicolaou met with Joe Daley, Director of Development for Clive Barker's edgy Seraphim Films. "I made a joke when it was my turn to pitch that they should've been called the 'Being John Malkovich' roundtable because it was one freaky story after another," she said. Daley promptly requested her script.
Bleary-eyed, the filmmakers reconvened at KQED Studios on January 16 for the weekend's final panel, "Truth or Dare: Buyers Best Picks," moderated Donahue-style by Marc Smolowitz. Panelists recalled their favorite projects, which included "Mr. Soul: The Sam Cooke Story" (John Antonelli), "Groove" (Danielle Renfrew) screening in Sundance's American Spectrum this week, "Borderline" (Lisset Barcellos), "Way Downtown" (Shirley Vercruysse) and "The Future of Yesterday" (Wolfgang Hastert).
While the details were mostly hush-hush, a few deals were inked and many previously unknown projects are now buzzing. IFFCON honcho Wendy Braitman concluded by announcing that Nina Menkes' drama "Heatstroke" was chosen by the Selection Committee for partnership at the Rotterdam Cinemart this year, then invited everyone to one more screening and one more party.
[Carl Russo is a radio producer and freelance writer living in San Francisco.]