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The 7 Questions that The Indie Film Community Is Grappling With Now: An IFP Film Week Overview

Indiewire By Paula Bernstein and Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire September 20, 2013 at 12:22PM

Spending a week at the IFP Filmmaker conference, it's clear that the indie film community has a number of questions it's trying to sort out. There's a growing frustration at how money circulates in the community, how people can develop careers as filmmakers when there's so little funding to go around. There's also a growing concern that, in many ways, the indie filmmaking industry is getting too concerned with building itself around institutional funders and the work from corporations that indie filmmakers use to help pay rent and sustain themselves.
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IFP "Want the Film Look? Shoot Film" panel

Spending a week at the IFP Filmmaker conference, it's clear that the indie film community has a number of questions it's trying to sort out.  There's a growing frustration at how money circulates in the community, how people can develop careers as filmmakers when there's so little funding to go around.  There's also a growing concern that, in many ways, the indie filmmaking industry is getting too concerned with building itself around institutional funders and the work from corporations that indie filmmakers use to help pay rent and sustain themselves.

Here are 7 questions we heard being asked at this year's IFP Filmmaker Conference.  Take your stab at answering them in the comments below.

Should independent filmmakers have a second job?

If we're not a handful of filmmakers -- those that somehow manage to stay autonomous and receive reasonable lumps of money to fund their films -- it's hard as hell to raise the money to run a production and pay everyone well.  In the Future of the Film Economy Panel, filmmaker Esther Robinson (who also runs the nonprofit ArtHome, a low income artist homeownership program) cited her Filmmaker Magazine article about filmmakers working second jobs and elaborated:

We all deserve a good life, including the right to make a movie.  It's not even about you personally, because you're broke and it sucks. There's a lot more people in the world who are much more broke than you.  If we're going to love the work that we do, we might want to look at what allows us to have a living we like.  It's like having a lover that doesn't quite deliver...Imagine the movies that you want to make are literally going to make you no money, what is the life you want that is still gonna make you money? You can stay in an industry and monetize pieces in that industry.  If your goal is to make films, then you need to look at it not as a place to make your income.  To me, I hate to see a director or producer who gets out at the peak of their talent.  [You get better at things as time goes on.] What took me weeks to do in my thirties, it takes me 10 minutes now in my forties.   I'm producing a film with Yancey Ford, our understanding was you don't pay me and I don't do anything I don't want to.  I don't look for something it's not going to give me because I want this film to be made.  But I do think that there's a question to be asked.  Can you improve the value of your life if you are doing it for free?  And then be happy if you can cash in?

Are traditional distributors bad?

Throughout the conference, and in speeches like Liesl Copeland's at TIFF's Doc Conference, there is a growing frustration that distributors, traditional and new, are obscuring video-on-demand numbers and other numbers that would be helpful to develop good deals for producers.

As "Return" producer Noah Harlan (now a tech exec) says about the data on content consumption online,

We [filmmakers] need more access to data.  They don't want you to have access to data.  All the people who walk around saying "Information should be free."  tell them to go fuck themselves.  You now have put all of that content onto Facebook or YouTube.

Raise your hand if you made more than $1000 off of YouTube.  [one person raises their hand] Go talk to him, all the rest of you got fucked.  The problem with all of that data having no access to it... It is stabilizing the market for distributors.

Producer Jon Kilik in his keynote counters,

Studio executives are not our enemy.  Especially today with more women and growing diversity.  I have found execs -- to a person -- as hardworking and courageous as their filmmaker counterparts.  They are passionate and educated in film history and often put their job on the line to help a filmmaker get what he or she needs.  

Who are IFP -- and other indie filmmaking organizations -- working for?

When IFP Executive Director Joana Vicente was joined on the conference stage by several of the men who would help her bring the new Made in NY Media Center in Brooklyn to life, many in the audience were wondering if there were opportunities for them at this center.  Are there?

It remains to be seen.  The panel wasn't able to say much about the partners that they'd be working with to help the interactive media center come to life (those details will be announced in two weeks, Vicente said).  It was hinted that corporate partnerships were top priority.  And when the panel was asked how one could become involved, the answer was:  buy a membership!

The questions from the audience, understandably, were focused on how this affected them.  They wanted to know:

1.) What would happen if one didn't have the money for a membership?  How would the Media Center integrate into the community?  (It is a collaboration with the city, after all.)  

2.) What a membership would give access to.

Both questions were answered with a "We'll see."

Is the social issue doc -- specifically, the publicly funded social issue doc -- dead?

In the week's most raucous panel, which was ostensibly put together to address the "Citizen Koch" controversy, Eugene Jarecki implied that documentary filmmakers interested in bringing attention to an issue needed to look beyond public funding and look beyond a public television broadcast to make a difference.

Jarecki, who took his War on Drugs doc "The House I Live In" on a tour of US prisons this year, chided the "Citizen Koch" filmmakers for not being better at promoting their revoked funding more, and noted that some filmmakers (like Laura Poitras) are putting their lives on the line to expose our time's most pressing issues.  While the panel was appreciative of public funding for documentaries like "House," Alex Gibney's "Park Avenue," and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's "Detropia," they were clearly pushing themselves and the doc community to figure out ways to make their films more than just a broadcast.

Can we get investors to care about more than box office (and Facebook likes)?

Echoing the concerns of Impact Partners head Dan Cogan, who also spoke at this year's TIFF doc conference, Debika Shome of big data aggregator Harmony Institute took the stage to explain how we might measure how documentaries and other films can make a difference beyond box office.

It's important that Cogan and Shome have two different starting points here.  Cogan's idea that filmmakers must give their investors "the gift" of a film that is something special, that is something that both the filmmaker and the investor want to see in the world.  It is hard to quantify and it is based on the human relationship between filmmaker and investor.  Shome's inclination is to encourage the quantification of how many kilojoules of electricity "An Inconvenient Truth" has conserved on its own.  And so as we say "Good luck!" to the statisticians and computers tasked with quantifying that, investors may be persuaded by the idea of an objective measure of success.  The indie film community must undoubtedly decide how much it wants to participate in the big data worldview.

What is social capital and is it necessary to make a film?

Gone are the days when filmmakers can focus on their work alone and assume the audience will be there once they're ready to screen their project. Now, everyone seems focused on developing a brand and creating a relationship with the audience even before the production begins.

As Indiewire's Dana Harris said on the "Social Capital: You're Richer Than You Think," panel, "Social capital is an essential element now of being a filmmaker. There is no real way to be an independent filmmaker without it. Making any film, much less an indie film is an effort of a group of people. But the amount of trust required not to just get the film made, but the film seen, requires social capital."

But, it's not just about creating a Facebook page and tweeting about what you ate for lunch. You've got to invest time in your social profile and develop relationships through social platforms like Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter. Which leaves many filmmakers wondering -- who has time to Tweet when you're busy scrambling for funding and preparing to make a film?

What's the deal with crowdfunding? Can it help me make my film?

Crowdfunding is the hot topic these days among filmmakers -- especially because of the changes that will come next Monday, September 23rd when the JOBs Act could usher in a new era of equity crowdfunding. The good news is that it will likely mean more money on crowdfunding platforms. The bad news is that there will also likely be more competition. 

"When this becomes extremely popular, you're going to be competing with the Disney organization," said Robert S. Fingerman, CPA and president, Independent Films Production Consultants. "I think that's going to happen and it would be disastrous."

There's also the question of celebrity crowdfunding and how it affects independent films. While some filmmakers are concerned that folks like Spike Lee and Zach Braff are taking away money from smaller projects, Jon Reiss, director of "Bomb It 2," disagrees, saying, "they're bringing more people into the community and they're making the pot bigger and getting people used to crowdfunding."

Keep in mind though that the "donations" you receive via crowdfunding are not gifts and you will have to pay taxes. There are a lot of other challenges that filmmakers face when crowdfunding, so keep in mind that it's not as simple as it looks.

This article is related to: IFP, Filmmaker Toolkit: Budgets, Filmmaker Toolkit: Distribution, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries, Filmmaker Toolkit: Crowdfunding, Filmmaker Toolkit: Production, Tech