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First Person: Brian Newman on Nonprofit Media Arts Orgs - The Situation Has Never Been More Dire

Logos for (left to right from top): Austin Film Society, AIVF, Film Arts Foundation, Film/Video Arts, IFP, IDA, Film Independent and IMAGE.

[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.

TAGS: Advocacy
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11 Comments

  • whoisdonald | April 18, 2006 1:06 AMReply

    I�'d like to share the Film Arts Foundation perspective, as we�ve been mentioned in this growing dialogue about the crisis for non-profit media arts organizations.

    This crisis is not new for us. We saw a major downturn begin during the dot-com collapse in 2001-2002 followed by an economic and funding decline. Since then we'�ve been wrestling with many of the issues raised in these dialogues. We�'ve done an emergency fundraising campaign (fortunately our community responded with $55,000); we'�ve made painful staff cuts; we'�ve made difficult program cuts (most recently our film festival � now on hiatus); and we�'ve worked to balance the needs of our members with the goals of our funders. Now we�'re looking for our next executive director to lead us into the future.

    We�'re by no means �out of the woods� yet, but we are seeing some positive signs of a turnaround: our education program is thriving; advertising in Release Print magazine is at an all-time high; new members enthusiastically join when they discover our organization; we have new, energized staff onboard; our fiscal sponsorship and equipment rental programs continue to be active; and we'�re hearing more requests for our community-building events. We�'re also fortunate to have a permanent home as co-owner with three other non-profit media arts organizations of the Ninth Street Independent Film Center.

    We certainly feel that media arts organizations are needed as much today as they were thirty years ago. We hear this every day from filmmakers on the phone, via email and in our office. Meeting the needs of film and media makers in this quickly changing landscape is a challenge and we certainly cannot be all things to all people. Yet our mission remains unchanged: supporting the creation and success of independent film and media.

    Film Arts appreciates everyone who is a part of our community, whether as a member or supporter, and will do our best to continue to support our growing and diverse community.

    Donald Harrison
    Director of Membership
    Film Arts Foundation

  • craig zobel | April 4, 2006 6:58 AMReply

    wow. You totally nailed it, EILEEN 13. I agree. Make membership something that you have to invest some personal resource in, and you will have a much healthier constituency. It will, in turn, influence the nonprofit to advance programs that will have a greater impact on the membership, which will, in turn, keep its members supporting it financially. I'm sure it's way harder than that to actually do, but I think you addressed the true solution...

  • eileen13 | April 3, 2006 9:34 AMReply

    I also want to thank Brian for bringing this "elephant" into the big room of the independent filmmaking community. I, like many others who are commenting here, am extremely concerned and involved in the plight of nonprofit media arts organizations. Having entered this world totally coincidentally, when my years of for-profit production experience came to a halt with a move to Cannes, I am continually trying to bridge my experience and knowledge from the profit world to the nonprofit world. This is not easy, mainly because the two different worlds (not to get too political here) are similar to the difference between capitalistic democracy (USA) and social democracy (France). While both pretend to be democracies, the US model is clearly unapologetic about the profit necessity while the French model is the same about their socialism. Having lived under both models, I can assure everyone about to write criticism of my analysis, that both are extremely flawed, yet I have experienced first hand the success that each has in "taking care of" it's constituency. With this in mind, I decided recently to write an essay for myself. My "self analysis" essay is regarding the need for the nonprofit world and the profit world to stop seeing each other as enemies and start learning from each others mistakes.
    My premise is simple, in reading many articles on this subject over the last few years, while nonprofits are struggling, so are the major media conglomerate companies....and I believe their struggles are stemming from the same denial factor: the executives in both areas have refused to change their view of their audience (constituency). As usual, the audience is way ahead of the curve about what they really "want," while the executives continue to think they know best what their audience wants. I recently heard it described as - "the way people consume media is changing, but the way media companies make money is not."
    iPod, DVR, Netflix all are examples of the way the audience is telling us what they really want....independence. This means that mass audiences are being replaced by niche audiences, and it doesn't matter which side of the profit margin you fall on, this remains the same. But here is where I feel so many nonprofits miss their mark, they are already an established "niche market." What I think has been the failing for these entities is the lack of establishing a real sense of "ownership" by the membership of these groups. This has been addressed by many people in the comments before mine. As an anecdotal example, back in the 80's when I worked in television production in New York, I tried in vain to be admitted to the New York Women in Film organization. It was considered a real privilege and select group to be a part of at the time. It was a very selective "niche" organization that only allowed film professionals, so I, along with many other women in television, were refused admission. We went on to form our own "niche" group, NY women in television, which became very selective as well. While I am not advocating that nonprofits should become the new "society clubs" of the new media world, I am suggesting that it seems throughout my career I have noticed that many of the media organizations I have been involved with, do not seem to understand the power of their membership base. Members should have the feeling of privilege and partnership in the organization. I cannot say that any organization has made me feel this way with a simple membership....it has always taken effort on my part, through volunteering or further involvement, to have a sense of ownership within the group. While I understand that all belonging requires a certain amount of work on the part of the individual, I really believe the underlying feeling of the importance of the individual member is overlooked consistently in these organizations. There really should be as much effort and development put towards the membership area as there is in the sponsorship area of all these organizations. While I know it is nearly impossible for revenue to be largely based on the membership programs and events, I don't think nearly enough effort is made to try and restructure the mission of these organizations around their "true" customers....their members. I think ultimately, the answer for the NBC/Universals of the world along with the AIVF's of the world, is the same: they must empower the demands and desires of their audience with an ACTUAL reactive and interactive organization where the member/audience feels that their individual/independent needs are not just met, but listened and responded to as if the life of the organization depended on it.....and guess what, it does.

  • paintbrush | March 30, 2006 6:45 AMReply

    Great article & discussion! 3 more thoughts:

    1. For these organizations to be relevant to up and coming filmmakers - they need to be supported and taken seriously by established members of the independent film community. It seems to me the problem starts at the top - with "independent" companies becoming hollywood light...

    2. There are probably creative ways to get corporate sponsors interested in the talent pool/professional community - from commercial contests to deals with small cable channels for placement for example.

    3. "Sexy causes like human rights" - well why not attach a component that matches filmmakers with communitites that have needs - I've worked in homeless shelters and domestic violence shelters teaching creative writing and it is very personally rewarding and can be connected to interesting projects...

    Perhaps the general spirit of non-profit is what's changed?

  • craig zobel | March 29, 2006 5:23 AMReply

    Brian's article brings up a subject that I feel has been sitting like an elephant in the room for far too long now. When I read that AIVF was in crisis I reacted like this: "Oh that sucks. I don't really know what AIVF is, but I know they had some research library thing that used to be important." I went hunting on the web for info about the AIVF. All I could find was their website which had been redesigned with only the info about their crisis, begging for people to donate or join. But why should I join? Like... Why should I join ANY of them? Most of these organizations promise basically the same things: 1) Access to equipment. Well, I'm writing this email on a computer capable of editing a feature film, and a zillion people have DV or HD prosumer cameras now; 2) Access to other filmmakers for working on projects. Well, grips and sound mixers don't join the IFP or things like that- only other aspiring directors. To me, getting crew from a nonprofit means getting inexperienced PAs. 3) Access to educational panels. Well, panels (at festivals or things like the IFP Market) have not left huge impressions on me personally. Like Brian said, can't we learn that from personal research for free? I get more from reading Indiewire or Variety. 4) Avenues/strategies of/for funding and/or exhibition and/or distribution. Oh yeah? Okay. Hmmm... DCHIN's response to this article says, that the problem is: "the filmmakers who are supposed to be served by the organizations are increasingly myopic, and so egocentric that they can only see these nonprofit organizations as a conduit to the industry, which is not the mandate for any nonprofit media organization". I'm sorry dude, but that effete "egocentric" attitude is what keeps members AWAY from those organizations. Did DCHIN work in Nonprofit Media Arts in an age where filmmakers DIDN'T want to be a part of the industry? If so, when was that? Is he talking about the nonprofit only as an aid for esoteric museum style video-artists? If so, he and his nonprofits can keep those guys- that's not a group I WANT to be a member of. My filmmaker friends tend to stay away from these organizations, feeling that they are slightly clueless as to the industry's workings (at least w/r/t production), have inaccurate or old information, and attract only people who are equally clueless to the industry. Having actual working filmmakers avoid these nonprofits keeps them less than useful. Things like the Austin Film Society work because they actually sound fun- like something you'd wanna go be a part of. If these nonprofits want to survive they need to redefine their idea of who they would like to attract as members and work backward from there. -Craig Zobel

  • marlinesq | March 29, 2006 2:52 AMReply

    Like most things in post-human America, the NP media sector has succumbed to the Golden Rule of Business: Those that have the gold, rule. Most of what Mr. Newman talked about as the problem, showed up in his suggested solutions. I don't think he is being disingenuous, his circular reasoning is just a reflection of the doo-loop that we find ourselves in these days: how do you reflect all of the vibrancy and relevant human interactions and endeavors that are not about money, without having money? If you've ever seen the Citibank billboards that proliferate throughout the City, you understand the problem. This mega financial institution whose prominence in our culture is based on their wealth, is chiding us about life being bigger than wealth. Go figure.

  • numbr007 | March 28, 2006 10:59 AMReply

    While some nonprofit arts cooperative's are failing, others are growing due to understanding of the new market. Helicon Arts Cooperative (heliconarts.com), a 501(c)(3) in LA dedicated to producing original screenplays in 24P hi-def, successfully petitioned the IRS to allow the first ever narrative fictional feature film to be produced entirely through non-profit fundraising. The financing is complete and the film goes into production in May.

  • premierepictures | March 28, 2006 8:56 AMReply

    As a member and supporter of a number of the organizations listed in the article, I've constantly reminded the organizations that while "non profit" it doesn't mean non-professional or non-market influenced. Non-profits often become self-obsessed, and forget that the membership needs to be served, not the organization. I've helped with a number of fund-raising drives, given freely from my own resources, only to hear "we're in financial trouble AGAIN." At some point, one gets tired of the little "non-profit who cries wolf." If you can't stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen. Either these organizations find a way to survive without constantly begging for money (and that way is to offer goods and services that membership needs and will pay for), then so be it. Let them go the way of the Model T. It's time that non-profits stop whining about their lot in life, and make the organizational and mission changes that will keep them up and running, market based, and still serving their members. I, too, am really done with supporting models that won't work, and/or which are too stubborn to see the writing on the wall, i.e., "you're out of business." Ron Merk, Premiere Pictures International, Inc.

  • dchin | March 28, 2006 5:25 AMReply

    Brian Newman's comments are both entirely appropriate and also difficult to quantify; all nonprofit media arts organizations have to face the problem of being in competition with market forces. Having been in this field for over 30 years, I have seen so many organizations faced with the problem of redefining a role for themselves. Unfortunately, most of the people working in the field have not been able to adapt quickly enough, with the result that the organizations are now topheavy and increasingly irrelevant to the field. (This is a harsh appraisal, but if people like me don't make it, after all the time I've spent in the field, then experience is useless.) But one real problem is that the filmmakers who are supposed to be served by the organizations are increasingly myopic, and so egocentric that they can only see these nonprofit organizations as a conduit to the industry, which is not the mandate for any nonprofit media organization. In almost all cases, the mandate is to allow for "independent" expression, to provide access (to equipment, postproduction, and alternative means of exhibition and distribution) and to help create a field that provides an "alternative". All the organizations which I worked at or helped to start were defined in those terms: we were not gearing our work towards "the industry", which was irrelevant to us. But all younger filmmakers want is "access to the industry", and I have to say that those filmmakers I worked with who did become part of the industry did so by simply making their own films and getting publicity and then having the industry come to them. So to all the filmmakers who want nonprofits to be a conduit to the industry: if you can't make it on your own, don't expect anyone else to help you. (Again, that's harsh, but that's the only way to express it so that the point is made.)

  • bruhrabbit | March 28, 2006 2:30 AMReply

    I've been a member of several of the organizations mentioned in this article. The chief problem I see is making the membership feel like you care about their problems. I ended my membership in these organizations because I realized that they could provide me no more access to capital or avenues of distribution than I could create on my own by hustling for it. Basically, I realized I was wasting my money. Until a customer service approach exists, which emphasizes real results for bringing in new and/or helping older filmmakers in the industry- I think you will see the continued decline. At bottom, we want people who are going to help us get our films made.

  • texadelphia | March 28, 2006 12:12 AMReply

    The reasons AIVF and others are faltering are complicated. The success of the Austin Film Society, by comparison, is fairly simple. They started with a kick-ass screening series which lives on today. With popularity and clout they were able to establish a funding mechanism to help films get made and seen. And they helped create an Austin-based studio, so they have real industry cred. All this can be recreated on AIVF's turf - but it will take a local Richard Linklater to get the ball rolling. Someone should get on the horn with Steiner and Silvercup instead of the Ford Foundation, I think.