BIZ: IFFCON 2001; Despite Doldrums, Content Galvanizes Producers and Buyers
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/ 01.18.01) — It came down to this: K. Louise Middleton standing in the bathroom, avoiding the Buyer’s Best Picks panel of the 2001 edition of IFFCON, the International Film Financing Conference.
Middleton was one of 60 producers who had made the cut in the eighth edition of the annual weekend event in San Francisco that brings together struggling independent film producers and industry professionals from around the world. Her project, a $75,000 feature on digital video called “Glass,” about the strange relationship between a Mexican immigrant widower and troubled young American woman, was alternately encouraged and disparaged by the professionals over the weekend. Now, on Sunday afternoon, Middleton, fresh from having been told to quit filmmaking, decided to sit out the panel.
What she didn’t know was that two of the five panelists had singled out “Glass” as one of the weekend’s best projects.
“I didn’t need one more reminder that no one was interested in this project,” Middleton said. “And so I went into the ladies’ room, and Jerry Heppler (IFFCON’s director of operations) grabs me and says ‘Will you get in there?’ People are saying things.’ And I was shocked.”
“I had several people specifically seek me out and told me to quit,” continued Middleton, a 12-year veteran of the theater who spent Monday and Tuesday on house-painting jobs. “They said, ‘What are you doing? You’re never gonna make any money at this.’ And my response was, I’d fight back the tears and feeling sick and I’d say, ‘I don’t know about that, but I’ll tell you this much: All I need to make is enough to keep my gas on, which I think was turned off this weekend.’ “
Stunned by the outpouring of positive support, a baffled Middleton approached the microphone and said, “This has been a weekend of ups and downs. I’ve been completely uplifted, completely deflated, but ultimately, I am leaving this weekend galvanized.”
And so it went at IFFCON 2001. If last year’s event was relentlessly uplifting — punch drunk on booming technology, a vibrant economy and the power of the Web — then this year’s event was a splash of cold water. Tech stocks are down, companies aren’t buying as much, and there’s less money than ever. But more often than not, producers went home re-energized about their projects.
“The thing that sticks out in my mind is that people were a little bit gloomy, which was certainly not my goal, but I think the tenor of the times is not exactly uplifting,” IFFCON executive director Wendy Braitman said. “But I think it’s still good for people to get together and inspire each other, to try and bond together and make the future happen.”
There was plenty of, shall we say, drifting grains of salt. Sydney Levine, now of IFILMFINDERS, noted on the panel she moderated, 2001: Realities of the Theatrical Marketplace, that of the nation’s 37,000 movie screens, a mere 700 are devoted to showing specialty films. Only $50 million of the $7 billion box-office in 2000 went to those films. Suppose we’re a lot hipper and more diversified as a culture now? Realize this: In the Eisenhower years, 7% of the ticket-buying market share went to art and foreign films. In the last year of Clinton, it was less than 1%.
But, as keynote speaker and indie producing stalwart Jack Lechner, now of @radical.media, said, “These may be down times, but it’s still a great business to be in.”
Indeed, if anything was evident from the weekend, it’s that indie filmmakers may be poorer than ever, but they’re getting more bang for their low-budget buck. And the unique part of IFFCON is the behind-the-scenes meetings between the “powerless” producers themselves.
The Saturday and Sunday sessions were held at local public television station KQED, and during breaks in the action it was common to see, for example, a rural prairie lad from Saskatchewan, James Gottselig (“My Present Age,” a twisted comic narrative) and a native Chinese woman, Yue-Qing Yang (“Footbinding: The Three-Inch Golden Lotus,” a documentary), swapping producing stories.
While Yang said IFFCON was a more personal uplifting experience than similar events for documentarians in Hong Kong and Amsterdam, veteran African American filmmaker Larry Clark (“Passing Through,” NOT “Kids“) said the weekend conveniently brought people he needed to speak to within driving range of his Berkeley home.
“I can get done in a couple of days what it would take me a month to do otherwise,” said Clark, who is trying to fund an $8.5 million adventure, “Blue Hawk,” about a pair of African American Mountain Men escaping slavery. “It’s good because you get to meet individuals who are involved in companies. People move around a lot, so now you get to meet people currently in positions with companies, but six months from now they may be at another company, but you can kind of track them and say, ‘I met you at IFFCON in San Francisco,’ and that’s really helpful. You’re not just another phone call to them.”
There were the equivalents of a Knute Rockne halftime speech. How else would you characterize Lynn Hershman Leeson packaging Tilda Swinton, Jeremy Davies, renowned cinematographer Hiro Narita and complex special effects in a low-budget HDTV format? Her “Teknolust” panel, along with the case study of Kwyn Bader‘s “Loving Jezebel” and the excellent digital filmmaking lecture, “Reinventing Moviemaking” by Next Wave Film‘s Peter Broderick, were inspiring.
Broderick noted (again), “What’s been interesting to me is the way the process of filmmaking is changing. When Eric Rohmer at 79 goes digital, you know it’s serious. What we’re seeing is not only a different approach to financing, but also a different approach to production.”
Poor John Mason. His company, Kodak, was the first corporate sponsor of IFFCON, and Friday he arranged for a swell party at Zeum, near the Moscone Center and Open Day‘s picturesque location, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. But as Kodak is a film company, he was feeling a bit like a dinosaur. “Film’s still the universal standard,” he intoned like a mantra.
Ultimately, if that popular two-minute drill known as the “Perfect Pitch” panel and the Buyer’s Best Picks were any indication, IFFCON’s message was that indie filmmaking, be it on film or DV, is still alive and has, eventually, a bright future.
Nowhere was that more apparent than at the Buyer’s Best Picks panel. There were projects like Anne Masson‘s “The Waitress,” which New Line Cinema/FineLine Features‘ Arianna Bracco noted could work as both a commercial and an independent, and was one of a slew of strong women-oriented projects (a valuable niche in the indie market). Greta Schiller‘s “Paris Was a Woman,” about a lesbian community in the 1920s, was tapped as “educational and a natural for a German company” by TiMe’s Regine Schmid, who has spent the last 18 months co-producing “Eisenstein,” a project she first found at IFFCON two years before (“My measuring stick now at IFFCON is, ‘Do I want to spend 18 months of my life in the Ukraine working with this person?'”).
Other picks included Amyn Kaderali‘s “She Stole My Heart and Other Stuff Too,” which apparently has more to it than just a great title; Laurie Kahn-Leavitt‘s documentary “Tupperware: Earl and Brownie’s Plastic Empire,” which features some great archival footage; and Kevin Segalla‘s bizarre narrative “Fantasy Land,” which was singled out by three different panelists.
So times may be bad, but Film Four‘s Rebecca Yeldham struck perhaps the proper note for this IFFCON: “Something unique in this marketplace is the content. When it comes down to it, you have to look at what you are making. What is unique about your project? Because sometimes cast won’t sell your project. If you can make something as good as ‘Chuck and Buck’ and ‘You Can Count on Me,’ it doesn’t matter how down the market is.”
Now that’s galvanizing.
[G. Allen Johnson is a contributing critic to indieWIRE.]