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April 8, 2006 10:48 AM
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First Person: Jim Mckay - The Fate of AIVF and the Question of Community

Outside the AIVF office in Manhattan. Photo by indieWIRE

While I have cherished the AIVF for years and benefited from the organization and my participation in it greatly, I feel that it has, for quite awhile now, consistently failed to live up to its mission. This is not necessarily the fault, as I see it, of any recent Executive Directors, staff members, or board (though we all had our negatives, I'm sure). It is simply because as time has passed and the country and its media and art scenes have changed, the mission of AIVF has became increasingly impossible to fulfill.

This is not a simple situation and there are no simple answers. But here are a few of the larger problems, as I see it:

SCOPE: The organization is national, not local, and yet it runs on a comparatively small budget and can never fully reach and serve its constituency (despite good faith attempts like the salons, workshop tours, and regional issues of the magazine, etc.). Trying to reach out to such a wide base has challenged the organization's coffers and priorities while at the same time done little to change the image that it is NY-centric.

THE HIP FACTOR: As "independent film" became more trendy and enticing, AIVF got caught in a downward spiral of trying to "keep it real" in terms of its grassroots history while at the same time trying to siphon some of the energy, fabulousness, and, potentially, funding that was coming from what would become the mini-major scene. Organizations like indieWIRE and Filmmaker Magazine have been able to have feet in both ponds because they are written media only. The Independent (Film & Video Monthly) magazine tried to do this, but was also beholden to the mission of the organization, which, in reality, couldn't be more adverse to things like celebrity directors, box office comparisons, etc. And so the magazine (and the organization, as well), began to sink in both ponds.

TECHNOLOGY: For an organization representing media that has been consistently moving away from analog storytelling, AIVF never got up to speed technologically, forget about breaking new ground.

ALL OF THESE THINGS HAPPENED because the organization was always behind the ball, always trying to change and catch up and bring in new people while in the midst of also trying to simply stay afloat and remain faithful to its original goals and membership. The struggle to stay solvent, combined with the constant tug and pull of a constituency that wanted diverging things, led to an inertia that became, ultimately, debilitating.

One can see from some of the comments that people wrote in to indieWIRE about the situation that many people out there are not interested in an organization that provides support and community. They are interested in an organization that will somehow, for their $75 a year, find them funding and distribution for their feature film.

Since AIVF is not that organization, what is it? When I served on the board, I realized that it was slowly becoming harder and harder to answer the question, "why should I join AIVF?" For many, the answer was immediately "you get a good discount on insurance coverage." A great benefit, but hardly the reason for an organization to exist. My answer was always more abstract, about being a part of a community, having connection to media makers who were real heroes and groundbreakers -- members like Barbara Hammer, Julia Reichert, James Schamus, Arthur Dong. The list goes on and on. But this idea of community and connection, it felt like it was becoming more and more about the history of the organization than it was about the present day.

In the present day, we are dealing with a societal inertia that is the product of a massive effort by our government to bring "democracy" to other countries while stripping our own citizens of any role or voice in their media or political spectrum. Government support for alternative or public media is practically non-existent. Foundation support has dwindled tremendously. Corporate support goes to...well, corporate friendly organzations.

A truly grassroots, activist media organization cannot rely on awards dinners with $10,000 tables. Or ad revenue from movie studios. Or support from a membership base that has changed with the times, either.

In the course of writing this, I went to the AIVF website and was confronted with the fact that as I type, AIVF is in the midst of a fundraising campaign to raise $75,000 to "reinvent" the organization. The last thing I want to do is undermine that effort. Yet descriptions of how this reinvention will happen, however well-intentioned, still seem vague and far less radical than is needed. If AIVF is to live, it needs to present the media community with a specific, radical reimagining of the organization, one that presents itself as not only unique and necessary, but also dependable and self-sustaining.

A new paradigm must emerge.

Whether it emerges from within a "reinvented" AIVF or from its ashes, we desperately need a community and a voice for real alternative, grassroots political and personal work.

Jim McKay is a writer/producer/director based in Brooklyn. His films include "Girls Town," "Our Song," "Everyday People," and the upcoming "Angel." He is a former AIVF board member.

TAGS: Advocacy
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15 Comments

  • jqmes | April 25, 2006 6:32 AMReply

    In his comment above, Jason Rosette articulated much of what I've been thinking in preparation for a follow-up comment.
    "It's Capitalism, Stupid," is perhaps another way to say it.
    It's an illness much bigger than AIVF or the media community and the answers are elusive.
    I would add to Jason's Remedy #1, "Chop off the head of the serpent," a #2, which is the old "Think Global, Act Local." When the forces in power are as overwhelming as they are in this moment in time, perhaps the most effective thing one can do is change the way they live, get involved in their immediate community, set positive examples, make great art, and collaborate within a community of their own making, which inevitably expands and infiltrates the culture in its own way.

  • camerado | April 23, 2006 4:49 AMReply

    Community based media in the USA is dying out because community in America is unfortunately dying out.

    I too enjoyed and used AIVF, especially in the good old Johnny McNair days on Broadway. The decline of AIVF is a signpost which points to the decline of COMMUNITY in America due to many causes, too numerous to be mentioned, but overwhelmingly driven by profit culture of corporate America, which now has unprecedented--and now unmanageable--influence on everyday life in the US.

    This influence will spread as long as any corporation without a built-in ethical dimension seeks to expand and bring more "value to its shareholders"

    The decline of community is a condition that goes beyond the indie film scene, beyond issues of media advocacy. It is a condition which has its roots in deeper, more troubling variances in the socioeconomic/ cultural condition of NATION, PEOPLE, etc.

    Add to this the shearing effect of trying to maintain a sense of community when, simultanously, many mediamakers are competing for the same resources (funding, etc), and the result is a very unstable set of mutually serving alliances, that are often severed when these alliances and associations cease to serve one or both parties involved--NOT a healthy basis of community at all.

    Unless those mediamaking community members are bound in a classical sense by family/blood lineage, which is probably not the case with most AIVF members, then the framework of such a constructed community will remain vulnerable, primarily, to economic forces.

    In short: true community is not governed by economic states of expediency, as in ways to secure funding to complete a feature film--in itself not a vital act for survival as is food production, administration of health resources-- but by ideological connection and factors of nation identity.

    So what is the remedy to all this? One remedy is to chop off the head of the serpent -- to focus energy on attacking, criticizing, and holding to accountability those corporate entitites who are consolidating strength at the expense of vital, real, community structures...the rub being that many mass media outlets are governed by the same corporate sturctures that are contributing to the damage.

    Therein lies a valuable civic duty: to form ideologically driven community units, whether the structure is handed to us or not, (via ready membership in an organization) in order to preserve this most sacred and human aspect of our lives: true community

    Anyway, hope this is at least a point of departure for further discussion,

    Jason Rosette
    CAMERADO
    Phnom Penh, Cambodia
    www.camerado.com

  • whoisdonald | April 18, 2006 1:16 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

  • diy filmmaker sujewa | April 12, 2006 4:45 AMReply

    4/11/06 Village Voice article by Anthony Kaufman

    http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0615,kaufman,72822,5.html
    (check out the entire article, there is a good Spike Lee mention & quote in there too)

    "Indeed, the terrible irony of AIVF's current crisis, says McKay, "is that there is a greater need in this country for the activist part of AIVF now more than ever." As the major studios shut down new technologies that could help independent artists distribute their films (e.g., Grokster), as government institutions intermix with private companies to limit the availability of public information (e.g., the Smithsonian's recent deal with Showtime to privatize its archives), and as the Senate guts "net neutrality" provisions from a telecommunications bill, "there needs to be an organization that is lobbying Congress," says McKay, "that is dealing with broadband issues, that is shining a spotlight on grassroots organizations." "

  • diy filmmaker sujewa | April 11, 2006 2:56 AMReply

    cool (w/ some possibly useful ideas) e-mail exchange w/ AIVF:

    This morning AIVF's Priscilla Grim e-mailed me the following:

    >>>>>

    http://blogs.indiewire.com/jamesisrael/archives/007743.html

    your comments:

    Another thing I'd like to see in all sectors of the
    industry is more openness & direct access or established institutions
    answering e-mails by new filmmakers, at the least.
    I think iW & Filmmaker mag do a good job in being accessible to anyone
    (famous indie filmmaker or novice filmmaker or indie film fan,
    whomever). My experience w/ some other institutions & individuals have
    not been the same (let's hope they were just actually very busy when I
    tried to get a hold of them :), we'll see how it goes in the future).
    If indie film is indeed a community, then hierarchy-free communication
    among members/participants is a must. And it is just overall polite to
    get back to people who have a question for you. Since one of the key
    features of Hollywood is how closed off it is to most people, the
    indie industry could probably benefit by being way more open. And I
    guess it mostly has to do w/ adopting a more "customer service
    friendly" type attitude by indie film institutions, organizations &
    companies.
    >>>>.

    (and Priscilla said)

    When we were fully staffed we answered questions from filmmakers
    across the country 40 hours a week, regardless of membership.

    - Priscilla Grim

    >>>>>

    Which inspired a long e-mail from me, with some possibly useful ideas in it, here's what was sent to Priscilla:

    That's very good info. Priscilla. I think AIVF needs to speak more on their behalf, share precisely the kind of info. that you just shared w/ me, on a larger & more persistent scale, RIGHT NOW. James Israel's recent account (published at his indiewire blog) of what AIVF did for filmmakers from '00 - '03 (i think that was the period) was a good start. AIVF should write a similar account covering their entire history. Really, $70K is not a large amount for an association that has 5K? members (and also, no doubt, helped countless filmmakers get started on their careers). I believe the current members & future members need to be reminded about what they will lose if AIVF disappears, and that could be done by talking about everything positive that AIVF has done in its entire history.

    Someone closely associated w/ the current team @ AIVF should start a blog & write in it, maintain it on a regular basis. It is entirely possible that indieWIRE will publicize the blog by adding it to the Blogs We Love section & through other mentions, if you ask Brian Clark & Eugene Hernandez*. Through the blog AIVF can keep in touch w/ interested people. Specially people outside of NYC who may feel that they do not have easy access to AIVF. Anyone can get a free blog through Blogger, very easy & fast to set up (less than 10 mins), see my blog for an example: http://www.diyfilmmaker.blogspot.com/
    click on the blogger icon on top left of my blog to get started on a new blog.

    AIVF could make daily updates on the fundraising project through the blog.

    Also, ask for volunteers on various current AIVF projects going on right now. If people do not have a lot of money but they still want to help AIVF, they may make excellent volunteers.

    Given the long history of AIVF, raising $70K should not be this much of a problem, $70K is not a lot of money, even in the indie film world.

    Also, in my comment to Jim McKay's article I asked if IFP, indieWIRE & AIVF needs to be doing the same things, an answer would be: yeah, it is all right if multiple indie film organizations are engaged in providing the same service to indie filmmakers (this is a big country w/ a LOT of indie filmmakers), but the new AIVF could also focus a lot on distribution (perhaps a non-profit version of what Withoutabox is going to start doing soon, helping filmmakers do DIY distribution, but being a for-profit entity, what W-box will be able to do will be very little compared to the vast distribution need that exists) & of course advocacy (protesting Mark Cuban pulling Sex Addict from Landmark for very questionable reasons would have been a perfect job for a fully active & healthy AIVF), two services not provided by any other indie film organization.

    Thanks & talk to you soon. I will mail my AIVF membership fee this week. Also, I am thinking about doing a benefit screening (at least a partial benefit, 50% of ticket sales + additional donations) for AIVF in Seattle in May (or I can wait until I play my new movie in NYC, or maybe I'll do both). Let me know if you have any thoughts on me doing a benefit screening for AIVF in Seattle (my new feature Date Number One plays @ NWFF 5/19 - 21).

    I think the recent $13K that AIVF raised was a very good start. That's close to 20% of the emergency funds needed! Most excellent.

    Sujewa

    * a couple of hours or so after that e-mail was written I saw that iW's Eugene Hernandez said (as a result of an unrelated conversation) he will carry an AIVF advocacy column @ iW. most excellent.

  • diy filmmaker sujewa | April 11, 2006 1:52 AMReply

    Hi Julie,

    Re: "So I put my money where my mouth is and throw the first hat in the ring to begin this network. Who�s next?"

    I am interested/am in/down for The New Community.

    I am distributing my new feature Date Number One http://www.wilddiner.com/ this year & I write the DIY Filmmaker Sujewa blog, & I support other filmmakers through Indie Features 06 blog & the indieLOOP DIY Film Group.

    I am sure a lot of the 33 filmmakers & others at indieLOOP's DIY Film Group will be interested in new networking & community opportunities, check out the group here (then join, & post stuff, make new friends):

    http://social.indiewire.com/group_features.php?gid=4e732ced3463d06de0ca9a15b6153677

    I'll also mention the discussion here at Indie Features 06, so that some of the 17 members (most very active) there can think about doing more to build a more active & connected US indie film community.

    - Sujewa
    http://www.diyfilmmaker.blogspot.com/

  • julielab | April 10, 2006 12:54 PMReply

    Though, I completely agree that AIVF needs to reevaluate the execution of its mission, I refuse to believe that the idea of �community� in the indie film world is dead and gone. In fact, I think that we have all just become slightly lazy in fostering that community in a real way. The organizations/festivals that we have depended on to instill community, provide access and support and generally help us all to feel better about being in the indie film industry have, with few exceptions, changed or been forced to change with the times. Maybe instead of looking to them to help foster community, we just do it ourselves and perhaps that community does not just include the filmmakers but includes the audience as well. When we started indieIN, everyone told us that the public (even those in NY and LA) did not care that much about indie and foreign film and no one would use a site that listed where and when they were playing. But, almost a year later, we are still around believing in and catering to thousands of indie film lovers all over the country. Perhaps this is all about figuring out a way to combine what AIVF does or will do, with what indieWIRE does, with what indieIN does. It could be as simple as creating a �indie film network� that shares information and provides access, support and advocacy to the indie filmmaker as well as providing access to information to the indie film audience. Instead of each entity doing their own bit to support Caveh, we could have come at it as a strong and powerful network of advocates. Think about how powerful something like that would have been. So I put my money where my mouth is and throw the first hat in the ring to begin this network. Who�s next?

  • jqmes | April 10, 2006 11:38 AMReply

    Not wanting to be one of those people who doesn't reply to emails....
    I am replying to say I'm out of town but will follow up on some of the questions/comments above next week when I return.
    thanks,
    Jim McKay

  • diy filmmaker sujewa | April 10, 2006 11:14 AMReply

    Re: "Jim McKay's analysis of this situation is right on, but no matter what we (those of us from an "earlier" generation) say, the idea of a "community" is gone, and organizations which try to develop the idea of an independent, alternative media community are (sadly) becoming more and more irrelevant."

    Not true. We humans always need community. And strategic business & social alliances exist, perhaps informally but real, in every area of human endeavor, at all times (very few of us can get anything large scale done by ourselves alone).

    For an example of community among new filmmakers (most are on their 1st or 2nd features), check out Indie Features 06:

    http://indiefeatures06.blogspot.com/

    Thanks! Great discussion.

    Sujewa
    http://www.wilddiner.com/
    http://www.diyfilmmaker.blogspot.com/

  • shpunter | April 10, 2006 7:42 AMReply

    My personal experience with AIVF, as a member for two years, was that not only was there no sense or attempt to create community, but that my enquiries for information were generally ignored. AIVF would list some information and I would send an email asking for further into. No answer. I would send a second email. No answer. Then I would call and have to leave a voicemail ... I think you get the idea. This was NOT an isolated incident; it happened to me THREE times. The third time was when I decided to not renew my membership.

    The only AIVF staff person who went out of his way to help me get information was James Israel.

    I went to one AIVF event and my feeling was that, in general, the staff was more interested in their own careers as filmmakers than their jobs to help members of the organization that paid them.

    Richard Shpuntoff

  • bruhrabbit | April 10, 2006 7:33 AMReply

    my two cents as someone starting off: try to create something that will actually make the transition into the industry more likely. a) real mentorships. not just internships, but situations in which you pair people one on one with others. No one- especially not IFP/NY is doing this right now. This is the gap that is a really big right now. If you want to get people to have a sense of community, start by making us feel like this is a community.

    There are other areas. b) Diversity. No one except for Tribeca is doing anything with that issue right now, and even their efforts are limited to All Access. I mean a year round effort to change the face of indie film maybe a great way to accrue interest.

    The truth is when one looks at Ipop or at the executives listed here as the movers and shakers each year, it's sad to see there isn't any much diversity. For an industry that likes praising itself for its progressive impulse, I think this is extremely sad. If AIVF wants to become relevant- it should become the voice for those younger filmmakers of color who almost certainly will change the face of film in the next decade as the demographics of the film going audience continues to change.

    c) A focus on talking to filmmakers. Not a one sided process. I mean really listen.

    d) A real effort to spotlight rising talent to the industry as that talent demonstrates itself. Like it or not, filmmakers, young and old, are self interested animals. If you want us to get more involved and believe in these organizations such as IFP, F/VA and AIVF, you need to start from the idea that you have to offer us something that we couldn't find on our own. Info is no longer the barrier to most filmmaking. Nor is equipment. The real barrier is one of relationships. Help us with that, and you will get our interests.

  • eug | April 10, 2006 6:59 AMReply

    kyle,

    i love the idea that i think you are proposing... a monthly "advocacy" column in indieWIRE, in partnership with AIVF.

    i can say immediately, with no hesitation, that we'd like to publish such a column.

    eugene hernandez
    indieWIRE

  • mccollege | April 10, 2006 6:36 AMReply

    As a former (and brief lived!) board member of AIVF, I also would like to add that having board members who were also filmmakers became rather untenable for AIVF. Each of us, to varying degrees, became overloaded with the responsibilities of creating our own work and, after initial spurts of enthusiasm and energy, we fell down on the job. I quit after little over a year and a half when I went into production on my feature ROOM because I could no longer keep up with the responsibilities of being a board member AND a full time filmmaker. During my tenure, I was driven to do advocacy work, and truly AIVF is one of the ONLY film orgs that kept us up to date with FCC media consolidation under Michael Powell, through on-line alerts, forums and columns in THE INDEPENDENT, coverage that never would (nor did) appear in other film mags. It rallied hundreds of members to action to block the complete destruction of FCC media regulation in 2003. Vertical integration is bizarrely touted as some sort of plus right now for media empires, but it does independents no good (i.e. Caveh Zahedi's current dilemma case in point). Having one company control not only the means of production but every level of distribution, broadcasting and advertising will be a disaster for independent, critical thought. If there aren't open, competitive markets, then your doc critical of a mega-entertainment corps collusion in duping a nation to go on an ill planned Middle Eastern jihad isn't gonna see the light of day. Media advocacy ain't sexy, you can't take iPop pictures of it or faun over it as this years new filmmaker flavor of the month, but it's the only thing standing in the way to a return to the vertically integrated, tightly controlled and censured markets of pre-1960s America. If this could be AIVF's mission alone, continuing to educate all of us about boardroom maneuvering and D.C. collusion, it would be worth it for the organization to revive itself, albeit in a much smaller incarnation. And, it could be something done with a very small staff, an online presence with links to news orgs like IndieWire (and regular column space?) and without a top heavy bureaucratic board. Also, I'd like to take exception with Bo Mehrad's Ugly Betty blog idea for AIVF to find more corporate underwriting. There already are two major organizations that do just fine with corporate underwriters (and compete with each other for it!), so AVIF learning to play that game would just crowd the field that is already light years ahead. Maybe AIVF should just stick to a niche that would serve us all well. Just my 2 cents. Thanks Jim and others for adding to a discussion that was long overdue.

    Sincerely,

    Kyle Henry
    Former AIVF board member

  • dchin | April 10, 2006 6:34 AMReply

    Jim McKay's analysis of this situation is right on, but no matter what we (those of us from an "earlier" generation) say, the idea of a "community" is gone, and organizations which try to develop the idea of an independent, alternative media community are (sadly) becoming more and more irrelevant. And among young filmmakers, no one wants to discuss anything, they just want information that will benefit them in the most direct (commercial) way possible. I can't even begin to think of a way for AIVF to "remake" itself, and that goes for most of the media organizations that have continued to this day.

  • diy filmmaker sujewa | April 9, 2006 1:59 AMReply

    Hi Jim,

    Nice article. Good questions.

    What is the difference, if any, between the mission (& the actual work) of AIVF and that of IFP, in your opinion/experience?

    As far as I can see IndieWIRE takes care of excellent web coverage of indie film news, Filmmaker Mag
    from IFP is a good paper magazine & IFP is supposed to help filmmakers get their films made, AIVF's The Independent is a good paper magazine too, it is less slick than Filmmaker Mag (there is both a plus side & a minus side to that), I've found several past issues of The Independent to be very useful. Anyway, since IndieWIRE & IFP seem to have the indie news reporting & helping indie filmmakers make features tasks covered ( covered well?), what is a unique area of activity for AIVF to focus on?

    Some people have mentioned that issues advocacy, being the politically active arm of the US indie film movement/scene ( a lobbying group for indie filmmakers?), may be a good service that AIVF can provide.

    Another service that some organization could provide is an easy channel of communication between indie filmmakers & indie film theaters. The recent Sex Addict/Cuban issue has reminded to me that real indie theaters are needed (& work needs to be done by indie filmmakers & film fans to help sustain the real indie theaters), & that indie filmmakers & real indie theater owners may be able to benefit from a close relationship. Someone could keep an updated database of small indie theaters, non-profit screening venues, etc. & try to set up opportunities for theaters to work w/ filmmakers directly (quickly & cheaply), w/ out going through a distributor.

    Also the same for indie filmmakers & indie retailers US wide. Someone needs to keep an accessible, updated database where filmmakers can figure out which indie retailers may want to check out their DVD to carry in their stores (mortar & web) & how (& who) to get in touch.

    Another thing I'd like to see in all sectors of the industry is more openess & direct access or established institutions answering e-mails by new filmmakers, at the least.
    I think iW & Filmmaker mag do a good job in being accessible to anyone (famous indie filmmaker or novice filmmaker or indie film fan, whomever). My experience w/ some other institutions & individuals have not been the same (let's hope they were just actually very busy when I tried to get a hold of them :), we'll see how it goes in the future). If indie film is indeed a community, then hierarchy-free communication among members/participants is a must. And it is just overall polite to get back to people who have a question for you. Since one of the key features of Hollywood is how closed off it is to most people, the indie industry could probably benefit by being way more open. And I guess it mostly has to do w/ adopting a more "customer service friendly" type attitude by indie film institutions, organizations & companies.

    I'll mention your post at my blog: http://www.diyfilmmaker.blogspot.com along w/ these comments that I just wrote, so that more people can think about the issues.

    Sujewa
    *******