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Walking a Tight Rope and Swinging for the Fences: Across the Country, Non-Profits React to SFFS Anno

Walking a Tight Rope and Swinging for the Fences: Across the Country, Non-Profits React to SFFS Anno

“The rules of the game are in flux,” noted Gabe Wardell via email last week, reacting to the news of the San Francisco Film Society‘s expansion into filmmaker services in the wake of the demise of the 32 year old Film Arts Foundation. “While some say the sky is falling, and others make bold predictions about the future of our independent film, the truth is that no one knows for sure what the future holds.” Wardell, who runs the Atlanta Film Festival organization in Georgia, formerly known as the Image Film and Video Center, was just one of the veterans of the non-profit film sector surveyed by indieWIRE via email this week.

“The biggest mistake independent filmmakers (and distributors, and multi-national conglomerates…) have made is trying to be something they’re not,” explained Wardell, “In baseball terms, indie films have always hit for average. After a few towering homers, everyone started trying to swing for the fences.” He added, “Indie filmmakers have always worked (and should continue to work) on the margins. When you are not expected to hit a home run every time, you can be creative, take more risks and push the envelope. If investment remains modest, filmmakers, actors and producers will continue taking risks and producing groundbreaking work. (Or else they’ll go to Europe like Woody Allen…)

Adapting, Evolving, Reacting

“The world has changed so much since many of our organizations were founded,” observed Rebecca Campbell, who runs The Austin FIlm Society, launched more than 25 years ago by Richard Linklater. “At AFS, we have tried to focus on evolving into a mature fundraising organization without losing our soul. It can make for internal culture clashes, but I’d prefer that to extinction. It is not necessarily a disaster when an organization ‘goes under’ or two organizations merge. It can be an opportunity to let go of programs that have outlived their usefulness.”

“Years ago I predicted that this could happen as the media landscape began to change, and felt that the only way organizations could survive was to form partnerships or merge or configure themselves in whatever way they could to continue to do relevant work,” noted Eileen Newman, former head of New York’s Film/Video Arts and now deputy director at the Tribeca Film Institute, which recently merged with Renew Media. “Responding to the current needs of media artists is for me what matters most, if the San Francisco Film Society can provide services which enable work to be produced, for me that is the most important consideration. I work for an organization which just went through a huge change, with the goal of doing more as a merged organization than we could do if we were two separate organizations.”

“There are always bumps in the road in any arts community, but this is a lot,” noted Jane Minton, head of the IFP Minnesota, detailing recent challenges facing the arts community in her own Twin Cities. She said that the region has recently seen the closure of the Theatre de la Jeune Lune and the Minnesota Center for Photography, along with the departure of valued local adminstrators from the Minneapolis Institute of Arts‘ MAEP and the Southern Theater.

“A clear issue is prominent in these cases,” Minton added, “A two-way communication with the constituents. A few of these organizations made quick, decisive moves without communicating to their core users. Consequently, the constituents staged loud and pervasive revolts, calling the decision-makers out on the carpet…On this point, I commend Film Arts Foundation’s board for taking the time to communicate with their shareholders, negotiate with the San Francisco Film Society to preserve key programs for filmmakers and ensure the ongoing health of the filmmaking community.”

The Bay Area

A volunteer at Film Arts Foundation twenty-five years ago while working on “The Times of Harvey Milk” (for which FAF served as a fiscal sponsor), indie consultant and producer Bob Hawk later founded and ran the organization’s Film Arts Festival, a local film showcase that continued for 21 years. “After leaving FAF in 1993, I continued to consider it one of the vital centers for indie filmmakers in the U.S.,” Hawk added, “Over time it was increasingly distressing to hear of certain programs being cut back or eliminated. It’s pointless to go into the politics of it all at this time. The technology of the indie world has radically changed, and the way business is done, and the way work is now distributed, exhibited and made accessible has been in great flux.”

“The most important thing to me — the fate of the members and their being able to continue to enjoy needed services, including those who have projects with non-profit fiscal sponsorship — is that they are being offered continuity by having their membership atomatically transferred to the San Francisco Film Society,” Bob Hawk noted, “They will now be safely under a very strong umbrella, strengthened immeasureably in recent years by the leadership of Graham Leggat, whose intelligence and acumen I have admired for years and whose head and heart are in the right place.”

Continuing with deep responses to indieWIRE’s questions, Gabe Wardell noted that the San Francisco Film Society will have to walk a tight rope in its new role. “Shifting focus from catering to film connoisseurs to serving the entire Bay Area filmmaking community is a jarring transition. As the ED of an organization that endeavors to cater to both, I speak from experience when I comment that attempting to serve the needs of filmmakers while cultivating and serving the needs of film lovers, demands the patience, balance, tenacity, and strategic planning of Philippe Petit. One errant breeze could lead to disaster.”

Former Film Arts Foundation head Gail Silva, who attended Tuesday’s press conference in San Francisco said the announcement, “provides the opportunity for SFFS to revive what was once a strong commitment to local indies — the kind of commitment that FAF has been unable to deliver in recent years. Without question, the Bay Area film community deserves both first-rate advocacy and unwavering support.” Continuing she noted, “SFFS will quickly learn that local indies don’t sit quietly in their seats, waiting for the movie to begin. They will be phoning, emailing, and showing up at the door demanding that their needs be met by their new guardian. And SFFS had better be ready to provide that service.”

Serving Filmmakers

Asked how filmmaker services should change today, Atlanta’s Gabe Wardell responded, “Ultimately this is up to the filmmakers to decide. If there’s a legitimate demand, someone will serve it. Conversely, organizations that are failing are doing so because they offer services that are no longer valued/supported…or they cannot find funding to cover to cost of the costly slate of services on the menu.” He added, “Rather than attempting to serve a filmmaker’s every need, an information age non-profit organization needs to be able to direct a filmmaker to the source of services they seek…the organization, and its constituents are better served if you identify quality strategic partners who can provide the services BETTER than you can. It’s a win-win-win.”

“Filmmakers should speak up more about what they really need, and what they are willing to pay for,” advised Campbell from Austin. “As it stands now, the bulk of our services are paid for by private donors–via celebrity events–and government grants. I would feel more secure if we had a wider base of smaller donors. How do you convert people who value independent film into valuing their local media arts organization and paying their dues?”

“Very early on, I realized that to succeed, a non-profit must function like a business,” noted Gabe Wardell, “Too many aging and ailing non-profits are clinging to romantic ideas–too many arts organizations possess big hearts and want to be all things to all people. Yet we lack the deep pockets to do this.” He continued, “Every non-profit must acknowledge the economic realities of the market, and adjust accordingly,” warned Wardell from Atlanta. “You have to be brutally honest. You cannot afford to be romantic or nostalgic–or you face the very real possibility that you’ll join company with has-beens and also rans.”

Looking Ahead

“How media arts organizations move forward into the 21st century is an important question,” noted Jane Minton from Minnesota. “We’ve all discussed the need to shed the old models. It’s important in Minnesota to continue to survey where our film community is headed…The national models that I admire are the Renew Media/Tribeca merger model and Film Independent. Centering media NPO’s around a film festival does seem to be an important trend. In Minnesota we are glutted with festivals and I am looking for an alternative to that model.

“I think this is a particularly difficult time, because we don’t totally understand what the future will be, and now we hear so much about endings and closings,” added Eileen Newman from Tribeca, reiterating that organizations like FAF emerged at a particular moment, driven by specific needs. “The familiar, beloved models may go away, but exciting new models of communication will replace them, and for me that’s what matters most.”

“Media NPOs need to be in touch with the needs of [their] members, honor the traditions of the past but don’t cling to them, and be flexible enough to move to the next service the field demands,” said Minton from Minnesota. “In the midst of these confusing times, we must reassure our core that management is on solid ground, the finances should be transparent and we must realize that service to our members and the field are why we exist.”

Amidst all the talk of change, Bob Hawk struck an optimistic tone. “Although I am no longer a Bay Area resident,” he said, “I will become a member of the SFFS immediately to show my support for what I trust will be a very fruitful coalescence of forces that will enrich the overall American independent film scene.”

EDITORS NOTE: Leadership of both Film Independent and the IFP in New York did not respond to two direct email requests for comments.

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