[This is the latest in a regular series of "First Person" articles written by members of the film community. It is meant to showcase the opinions of our readers. indieWIRE readers interested in contributing a future "First Person" column should contact us by email: office AT indiewire DOT com.]
The recently announced crisis at AIVF has led to a mix of responses -- from supporters trying to save the organization to others saying they wouldn't miss its disappearance. Unfortunately, the problems at AIVF are symptomatic of a much larger crisis, and while few will admit it, the situation at most nonprofit media arts centers has never been more dire. It's no secret that there has been some recent turmoil at Film Arts Foundation, IDA, IFP and Film/Video Arts, and some organizations, such as the Boston Film & Video Foundation closed their doors a few years ago. While there are some notable exceptions to this trend, such as the Austin Film Society, the ever-perilous condition of nonprofit media centers has been getting worse and it's very likely that many of them will disappear soon. Intelligent people can debate whether this is a good or a bad thing, but it is clear that things are rapidly changing. At the very least, those of us who care about independent film need to recognize this crisis, analyze what went wrong, think about the future of independent film and decide what is and isn't worth saving.
What's going on? First, while foundation and government grants have been declining in all sectors, the media field has been all but abandoned by this traditional support structure. Most foundations no longer find it necessary to fund media centers unless they are working on a handful of trendy issues, like human rights or public policy. Because of this, most nonprofits have turned to corporate sponsorship. Corporate sponsors don't care about independent filmmakers, however, just potential markets and profits. As you can guess, most have found that big film festivals and public events score them a bigger market, so they've also abandoned the nonprofits that haven't changed their mission to attract more consumers.
Thus, individual donors are now the biggest area for potential funding. Unfortunately, most nonprofit executives don't know a lot of rich people, so successful nonprofits stack their boards of directors with people who can either "Give, Get or Get Off" -- give money, get money or go away. Contrary to this, almost every single media center has a board that consists of filmmakers and people who love film, but very few people who can raise money -- usually because they are raising it for their own films. To make matters worse, these boards have also been ineffective at their governance duties -- seeing the big picture and forcing policy changes to align their organizations with future trends. So, the nonprofit board structure itself has further suffocated the field.
While foundations and errant board members need to share a lot of the blame (corporations are just doing their jobs), so do the nonprofit executives themselves. The sky has been falling for years, and leadership hasn't been willing to step back and force systemic change by redesigning programs, decreasing staff or changing the entire way they do business. As a result, many are now going under because it's too late to make the drastic changes necessary to survive. Too, there is much overlap in the field -- do we really need multiple organizations all at half-capacity, struggling for the same IFC sponsorship dollars, printing similar magazines and holding identical panels? The field needs to consider consolidation, sharing of resources, and yes, even mergers as appropriate.
Last, the groups that are dying can essentially be categorized as those who didn't recognize and adapt to the changes in the field due to digital technologies. Media artists today don't need help accessing equipment as the costs have decreased; the film market has changed, with numerous new festivals, distribution ideas and places to show and possibly sell your film; and information that was once the purview of that expensive magazine can now be found online for free. What filmmakers do need are a community in which to connect, advocacy for policies that affect them, good information they can use, money to make their work, and new ways to distribute it. These can all be found or developed online, and these centers haven't made the shift. When people try to save AIVF, they are really trying to save the concept of the organization, because these organizations often stopped serving their members real needs long ago.
To be fair, most nonprofit leaders know that the world is different and that they need to change the way they do business, but it's hard to be a futurist when you're mired in the present (or past) trying to raise money to keep the doors open. Many of these groups have been and could once again be the lifeblood of this field. If they can repurpose, they could once again be a central hub for media artists to connect -- to find crew; to find out how to solve technical issues with their gear; to show and distribute their films; to find funding; to advocate against censorship, lobby for copyright, net neutrality and other political concerns; to pressure corporations to change policies such as archival footage pricing, or contract terms; and to get the advice on distribution agreements, contracts and the myriad needs everyone has, whether an emerging or established filmmaker.
It is ironic that this crisis is occurring at a time when independent film has become so influential and accepted in society. One could argue that this success negates the need for places like AIVF, and yes, we have some great new possibilities, such as Google Video, iTunes and Netflix. But these are corporate entities; they are beholden to their shareholders, not to the needs of the independent community. There is no guarantee that they will continue to distribute your media, and none of them want to make sure you get paid fairly for it. Only a place with the public good in mind can serve the needs of independent media artists and their audiences. If you want any of these organizations to survive, get involved now -- whether through money or just ideas, because otherwise I predict 2006 will be the end of the nonprofit media movement; and if it dies, our culture and our society will be worse for it.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Brian Newman is the executive director of NVR, a nonprofit that grants funding to filmmakers and supports the dissemination of their work through innovative programs, research, education and advocacy. He discusses important issues facing the field on a regular basis in a blog.