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Eugene Hernandez: The Indie Summit

Eugene Hernandez: The Indie Summit

New York, NY, September 29, 2009 — At the end of Friday’s Indie Film Summit here in Manhattan, a pair of leading film insiders were leaving the event together. One said to the other, “Half the people seem to be frustrated the model is changing and the other half are trying to be part of the change” (link). Such is the state of independent film right now. Some folks feel threatened, the business they created around indie film is under fire. Others are excited and engaged, there are great movies being made around the world by established and emerging filmmakers alike.

Three months ago I received a stirring personal email from MoMA’s chief film curator Raj Roy reflecting on this “critical moment” we’re facing in the film community. Changes. Arrivals and departures. Transitions and launches. Enthusiasm and fear. What does it all mean? Within two weeks Raj and I met to ponder the state of things and set a date for an urgent indie film summit. Then we began to spread the word.

Hardly harmonious, but always respectful, the Summit took place at the Museum of Modern Art on Friday here in New York City, under the auspices of MoMA, indieWIRE and Zipline Entertainment (with support from MoMA’s Wallis Annenberg Fund for Innovation in Contemporary Art through the Annenberg Foundation). The event was often inspiring, with so many leading figures from the film community expressing genuine concern for the cinema, even as some participants occasionally (and often understandably) retreated to viewpoints driven by their own self-interest.

Some seventy or so people, nearly every single person we invited, sat down together in MoMA’s Founders Room for nearly three hours on Friday. While our ground rules prevent me from reporting directly on the event — we all agreed that the conversation would be on background — we agreed to report on the topics discussed without quoting folks by name. After all, this first summit wasn’t created for editorial purposes, but rather out of a sheer need to get leading film figures in the same room for a candid conversation. We invited many of the key people who, over the past three decades, have been part of building the modern American indie film community.

Ira Deutchman, Ted Hope, Michael Lynne and James Schamus at the Indie Film Summit on Friday in Manhattan. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

The Summit began with about a half hour of milling about as guests arrived and gathered plates of buffet lunch. Many quizzed me about who would be attending and what we’d all be talking about. Early on in the planning process we’d agreed that Michael Lynne, given his long history as head of New Line, would be an ideal person to set the tone with some brief prepared remarks. On Friday, Michael offered no nonsense talk and at numerous points focused our discussion with keen insight. We also asked a number of leading folks to offer a few minutes of insight from their vantage point, knowing that reactions would ensue.

The striking tension between art and commerce was palpable on Friday. While a prominent insider spoke of an impossible to explain shock that has struck the independent film business, particularly on the sales side, another equally well-known participant eschewed any talk of a crisis, instead emphasizing that this is, “a golden age for international cinema.”

Producers butted heads with distributors over diminishing returns, particularly from digitally driven distribution, folks spoke of the end of equity financing (while others defended it), many considered shifts among moviegoers and the filters they rely on to tap into independent film, while filmmakers wondered how they might reclaim the magic of truly independent cinema before it became studio fodder.

“The magic is gone because we became a part of the system,” one veteran observed. “Our business needs to re-invent itself,” offered another. Meanwhile, an insider proclaimed simply, “We’re not working together.”

Tom Quinn, Dina Kuperstock, Jason Janego and Arianna Bocco. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

“We are faced with a changing customer,” explained an engaged participant, “We are not going to be able to stop them from changing.”

This weekend’s dispatches from the event are required reading and there will certainly be more follow-up.

“The two polarizing issues were: how do we make money, and how can we protect passion and content,” noted Anne Thompson, in her dispatch.

“There are some for whom independent film is more of a business, and others for whom it is more of an art. And when assessing the effect of the crisis, one could simply point out that bad businesses went away and good ones stayed,” reacted Scott Macaulay in his wrap-up, “Ultimately, we are a diverse group clustering around a collection of content, but the answer of what we’d each do with these individual piece of contents varies greatly.”

“Crisis breeds solutions, which means opportunity for those willing to dive in,” wrote Ira Deutchman, optimistically, in his ten responses to the event.

At indieWIRE, we’re proud of the work we did to make this first event happen (thanks and congrats to everyone involved) and committed to digging deeper into the many issues raised at the Summit and broadening the discussion to include more voices, while also developing more focused conversations around key topics. This event was a starting point. As many told me immediately after the Summit, it was about time such a group got together. An even more focused round of conversations are in order. We’ll foster an ongoing conversation here at indieWIRE, continue to point to others who are part of the discussion, and widely solicit feedback and input.

Raj Roy, Chris Horton and Mark Urman. Photo by Brian Brooks/indieWIRE

For the record, participants at Friday’s Indie Summit included: Brian Ackerman (Jacob Burns Film Cener), Rick Allen (SnagFilms), Karen Arikian (Hamptons International Film Festival), Wren Arthur (Olive Productions), Josh Astrachan (producer), Michael Barker (Sony Pictures Classics), Tom Bernard (Sony Pictures Classics), Jeanne Berney (Apparition), Arianna Bocco (IFC Films), Josh Braun (Submarine), Peter Broderick (consultant), Brian Brooks (indieWIRE), Michelle Byrd (IFP), Victoria Cook (Cinetic), Tom Cunha (Mammoth), Ira Deutchman (Emerging Pictures), Chris Eigeman (filmmaker), Paola Freccero (B-Side), Nancy Gerstman (Zeitgeist Films), Geoff Gilmore (Tribeca Enterprises), Mark Greenberg (EPIX), John Haddity (Producers Guild of America), Eugene Hernandez (indieWIRE), Ted Hope (This Is That), Vaness Hope (producer), Chris Horton (Cinetic), Anne Hubbell (Kodak), James Israel (indieWIRE), Jason Janego (Big Beach Entertainment), Jytte Jensen (MoMA), Larry Kardish (MoMA), Pat Swinney Kaufman (NY State Governor’s Office), Jason Kliot (Open City Films), Pam Koffler (Killer Films), Dina Kuperstock (CAA), Marian Koltai Levine (Zipline Entertainment), Richard Lorber (Lorber Media), Glenn Lowry (MoMA), Michael Lynne (Unique Features), Scott Macaulay (Forensic Films), Susan Margolin (New Video), Eileen Newman (Tribeca Film Institute), John Penotti (GreeneStreet Films), Travis Pomposello (EPIX), Tom Quinn (Magnolia Pictures), Raj Roy (MoMA), Emily Russo (Zeitgeist), Ira Sachs (filmmaker), Peter Sarah (Big Beach Films), James Schamus (Focus Features), John Sloss (Cinetic), Dan Steinman (CAA), Jack Turner (White Buffalo Entertainment), Anne Thompson (Thompson On Hollywood), Mark Urman (Palladin), John Vanco (IFC Center), Joana Vicente (Open City Films), Ryan Werner (IFC Films). Apologies to those who may have been overlooked here, please contact us if you attended the Summit and would like your name added to this list.

Eugene Hernandez is the Editor-in-Chief & Co-Founder of indieWIRE and can be reached on his blog, through Facebook or via Twitter: @eug.

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