With IFP/LA Exploring Change, Producers Hope and Vachon Speak Out; Dawn Hudson and Marcus Hu Respond
by Eugene Hernandez
The move by the IFP/Los Angeles to pursue a name change and distinguish itself from the other 5 IFP chapters stirred strong reactions from leading independent film producers Ted Hope and Christine Vachon Wednesday, a day that also saw organization Executive Director Dawn Hudson compelled to explain the reasons behind the potential move while IFP/LA board member Marcus Hu also weighed in. During a joint conversation with indieWIRE, Hope and Vachon expressed concerns about the IFP/LA board decision to pursue a re-branding and spoke of their frustration with indie film honors such as the Independent Spirit Awards. They also spoke of broader fears about the corporatization of independent film.
"This isn't a divorce," emphasized Dawn Hudson during a conversation with indieWIRE last night, a few hours after indieWIRE's joint call with Hope and Vachon. Hudson explained that while she had intended to refrain from public comment on the potential change until the matter is resolved by her board, last night she felt it was important to send a message to IFP/LA members who read indieWIRE. On Tuesday night, indieWIRE spoke with IFP/NY Executive Director Michelle Byrd who sought to emphasize that the New York chapter of the Independent Feature project would prosper no matter what the LA group decides to do.
"This is a continuing conversation," reminded Hudson, "We haven't finalized anything," but she added, "As an autonomous organization we feel that we can respond to our members more effectively (with this change). It's a positive step, we feel that we will be able to do more."
Killer Films partner Christine Vachon, calling yesterday from Austin, TX said that after reading a "Variety" article about the IFP/Los Angeles decision to pursue a name change this week, she and Ted Hope discussed the matter. "The article in 'Variety' gave (us) the idea that these organizations could actually break apart, and Ted and I just started (wondering) how does that help the people its supposed to serve." Specifically, many in the community see the move as pitting the Los Angeles chapter of IFP against the New York chapter. There are also four other IFP chapters, in Chicago, Miami, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Seattle.
Concerned about a potential IFP split, This is That partner Ted Hope calling from Los Angeles Wednesday said, "I am not of the mind that you throw it all out, I wish that the IFP in LA and the IFP in New York had a similar approach, why are they being separated, why is it going to come to two organizations chasing the same corporate sponsorship dollars?"
Hope, a former IFP/NY board member who was an active member of the coalition of producers that worked with IFP/Los Angeles and IFP/New York in the recently successful screener ban lawsuit said that he has spoken with Dawn Hudson and Michelle Byrd, "I encouraged Michelle and Dawn to stay together," Ted Hope explained, "I am not sure what they did or are going to do."
"We have no intention of severing ties, we simply want to establish a name that is unique to this L.A. based independent film organization," Dawn Hudson told indieWIRE Wednesday night. "If we should do anything, it would not be to sever the relationships with any other IFP, it would be to establish our own identity in Los Angeles and advocate for independent filmmakers."
"We want to (be able to) move in an unfettered way in developing new programs," explained Hudson, offering that in the current structure she feels compelled to notify the other IFPs of her decision and that something as seemingly simple as changing the shared IFP website requires a group effort. "We feel that we can do it better with our own name and our own identity," Hudson said.
Earlier in the evening, indieWIRE spoke with IFP/Los Angeles board member Marcus Hu, the co-president of Strand Releasing, who called to discuss the situation on the record. "By separating it's going to be more effective for the West Coast to concentrate on those members," Hu told indieWIRE, calling the situation a sad move but saying that he has tremendous admiration for the IFP/New York and the other IFPs. Continuing he said, "The organization really has to focus on itself and at the same time I know that the board as a whole does not ever want to turn its back on the East Coast at all, and I am hopeful that we are going to figure out a way that we can work together."
Considering The Independent Spirit Awards
The changes being pursued by IFP/Los Angeles come at a time when the organization is taking a closer look than usual at its 20-year-old Independent Spirit Awards. Those honors are a particular sore point for producers Hope and Vachon. The two privately expressed concerns about the Spirits in correspondence solicited by Dawn Hudson as part of a regular annual review. An indieWIRE review of their lengthy comments and suggestions sent privately to Hudson by email revealed numerous suggestions for dramatic changes to the way the award winners are determined and a number of comments that are quite critical of the event and its prizes. During this review process, Hudson and the IFP/Los Angeles board have received comments from numerous people in the independent film community, both supportive and critical.
The IFP/Los Angeles board is working with Dawn Hudson to consider changes that it could make both in the process of nominating and in the way winners are selected. Any decision that would impact this year's process could come as early as an April 28th IFP/Los Angeles board meeting.
"Dawn to her credit has reached out to a lot of (people), to try to figure out what can be done to improve (the Spirit Awards), but it has reached a crisis stage," explained Vachon during the conversation with indieWIRE Wednesday. "The awards need to celebrate that unique sphere of film that is often described as independent." Hope and Vachon are worried about the fact that larger films get nominations and the more popular films in each category seem to win. Continuing Vachon added, "It remains still as unclear to us as it did on day one, how do films get nominated, what's the criteria?"
"Is there a way to make them worth more than the paper they are printed on or the Lucite they are inscribed on," Vachon asked.
"I do agree with Christine and Ted that changes should be made, and I think that the organization needs to address the best possible way to make those changes," Marcus Hu told indieWIRE Wednesday. He also emphasized that the Spirit Awards is a crucial event for the group, being that it is the most important fundraiser for IFP/Los Angeles.
Hope and Vachon also worried that an IFP split would result in two competitive awards shows, the Gotham Awards in New York in December and the Independent Spirit Awards in Los Angeles in February.
"I think they are both prestigious, weighty awards, but I hope that there will be some changes in the Spirit Awards system," said Marcus Hu, adding that the two events are distinctive events. "The Gotham Awards is on an equal par," Hu told indieWIRE, "For the number of members they have on the East Coast, its just as important as the Spirit Awards are for the West Coast. We would never want to dilute their importance."
Talking with indieWIRE during the joint call on Wednesday, Ted Hope and Christine Vachon expressed concerns that the drive to serve corporate sponsors is motivating this situation and they said that they are in a position to raise their voices on the matter. "If you look around at the people we started out with, we are the dinosaurs and we are still doing the same thing we started out doing. That has given us a real intimate knowledge of the community we are working in and how it has changed because we have had to change with it or else we wouldn't still be here," explained Vachon. "Because of that we have a pretty unique position and have a pretty unique eye," explained Vachon, "We are in a fairly good place to advocate."
"Is the only way that we are going to get our movies made by turning them into car commercials," quipped Ted Hope. "Do we need to have the 'Staples Film of the Week' in order to get our movies made?" Continuing he said, "If the only way to make our movies is to have then co-branded, I don't know what you will see happen to an organization or an awards show." More specifically, Hope and Vachon feel that the decisions about the future of the IFP and its awards programs are motivated by the drive to secure more national corporate sponsors.
"We are starting to see the tail wagging the dog," Hope said. "I don't know why the IFP split, but I do know that a corporate sponsor wants to take their brands across the country."
Talking with indieWIRE last night, Dawn Hudson countered that the moves being explored by the IFP/Los Angeles are in no way driven by corporate concerns. "It is not about money or sponsorship," Hudson said simply, "Each organization is operated autonomously in that regard." She acknowledged that the landscape is changing, and in fact facing the studio corporatization, the best way for her group to stay relevant may be by making changes and re-branding itself.
"Our organization is (more than) 25 years old, if we weren't examining our name," Dawn Hudson told indieWIRE, "We wouldn't be doing our job."
"It is an amazing organization," Marcus Hu said of the IFP/Los Angeles, "They have shown an amazing commitment to the community and to diversity issues, and that's what makes me proud of being a board member."