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Film Independent Chiefs McManus and Welsh Preview Indie Spirits, Take Stock of LACMA and LAFF

Film Independent Chiefs McManus and Welsh Preview Indie Spirits, Take Stock of LACMA and LAFF

Just a year ago, long-time Film Independent staffers Sean McManus and Josh Welsh took on new roles as co-presidents of Film Independent, which runs many vital programs for the West Coast independent film community, as well as the Independent Spirit Awards and the Los Angeles Film Festival. They replaced Dawn Hudson, who left FIND to become the CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. I talked to the two men on the phone about where they are and where they’re going–and the upcoming Indie Spirits, my favorite awards event.

Far from being nervous at taking over 30-year-old Film Independent last January, both men were eager to move into running the place. Hudson left it in strong shape, they say, and all they had to do was build from there. “When we took over, we weren’t just stepping into a strong vibrant organization,” says Welsh. “We’d both been here cumulatively 25 years together, we were not unfamiliar.” One of their biggest challenges: figuring out how to give speeches together without wearing the same checked shirts.

Per usual, the Spirits awards lunch is back at the tent at the beach but won’t air until 10 pm Saturday on IFC. If you want to be surprised by the winners, stay off your twitterfeed. Why do they tape the show? They can edit it and get higher ratings at night. “Most people won’t know who the winners are until they watch the show,” insists Welsh. “There will be some creative surprises. We don’t want to do same thing over and over.”

Changes from last year include no band, some new sponsors (T-Mobile, Lincoln Continental) and a new host: SNL and “Celeste and Jesse Forever” star Andy Samberg (see video below), brought in by 18-year Spirits producer Diana Zahn. “He has a fun sensibility, he’s bringing his brand of humor to the beach, doing a lot of the writing and videos,” says Welsh. “It’s not the first time he’s hosted an awards show.”

The movies eligible for the Spirit Awards are supposed to be American indies budgeted under $20 million–but the nominating committee can make their own determination, says McManus. “It’s not a hard ceiling, not a rule; they have  latitude go above and below.” Thus Harvey Weinstein talked them into making “The Artist” eleigible last year–which dominated the awards and left no room for smaller films worthy of attention. This year’s slate of nominees is more typical: “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Keep the Lights On,” “Bernie,”  “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Silver Linings Playbook” among them.

Their downtown experiment was strictly for the Spirits’ 25th anniversary, although they’re committed to the venue for the Los Angeles Film Festival, under new a director, producer Stephanie Allain, who “brings boundless energy,” says Welsh, who insists that the LIVE Theater and downtown venues work well, even if attendance is just on par with past festivals. Adds McManus: “The filmmakers love the red carpets, seeing their films presented on beautiful screens. We’re a filmmaker organization. The audience is also younger and more diverse. We’re adding more screenings during the daytime to increase our capacity.”

The most unexpected new responsibility was taking over the reins of the cinema program at LACMA, which started in the fall of 2011. Booked by interviewer Elvis Mitchell and the museum film department’s Bernardo Rondeau, “it’s a huge program,” says MacManus, “like a film festival all year round. We were used to producing the LAFF, but had not anticipated producing 48 screenings at the beginning; going forward it could be 78.”

In year two of Film Independent at LACMA, running the public film program is a massive enterprise, from booking and production to marketing and talent relations. It’s a full 50/50 financial partnership with LACMA. All the money raised by admissions and partnerships go back into the burgeoning program. “Bernardo works closely with Elvis,” says McManus, “and they provide an amazing facility.” One highlight is Jason Reitman’s popular live reads, which always sell out. With “The Big Lebowski,” the 600-seat Bing Theater was packed with 150 more on the plaza, lined up listening over loudspeakers.

From the ground, fundraising has always been front and center at the non-profit, admits McManus: “That’s a big part of our efforts, to raise private funds to operate the programs, and as we continue to move forward with Filmmaker Labs and Project Involve.” Membership-building is another year-round drive. Film Independent membership is open to “anyone passionate about indie film,” says Welsh. “People from all over the world come here to LA to be part of the filmmaking community, but it’s so difficult to break in. Our arms are open as a place they can come to for support and help. We have seen our membership base grow, you don’t have to be invited.” In fact membership is around 4000 – up 15% in 2012 over the last fiscal year.

Another program in year two is their Fox Writers Intensive, launched when Tom Rothman was still running Twentieth Century Fox. It started with conversations about a screenwriting program to go with Film Independent’s filmmaker labs. The joint venture is for mid-career writers who are emerging with one produced feature or TV credit who need mentorship for concentrated development. So far ten screenwriters have participated and been introduced to the creative execs at Fox over 4 1/2 months, and year two is about to launch. Out of the first group, Fox bought one screenplay and hired another writer for a TV show. For year two, Fox has commited “to do the same or better,” says Welsh, “as a serious professional program incubator for talent.”

The studios look at Film Independent’s annual talent guide –both online and booklet– which lays out all the F.I. fellows and their project  synopses and contact info. “Fox recognized that one of our core competencies is to identify talented filmmakers from all kinds of backgrounds,” says Wesh. “That’s part of our mission, to help them sustain careers in the film industry.”

Film Independent, like Sundance, Cinereach and the San Francisco Film Society, doles out grants and is growing the amounts they give away. “We’re expanding them,” says McManus; they’ve moved from 100-200,000 in direct grants to filmmakers to $200,000-300,000. Adds Welsh: “There is a thriving economic ecosystem in the non-profit space in the film world. We sometimes support the same films, or unique projects, we collaborate and talk to each other.”

Eleven Film Independent projects played at Sundance 2013, including James Ponsoldt’s “Spectacular Now” and Cherien Dabis’s “May  in the Summer.” “Many times donors really like to help a particular filmmaker,” says McManus, “it’s a tangible feeling of reward for them to see a project go from development to production and post and hopefully fin their way though the festival circuit.”

The indie world is evolving, as sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo now generate more revenue for filmmakers, and VOD comes into its own. But Film Independent is committed to the theatrical experience via the Los Angeles Film Festival, whether digital or 35 mm.  One area filmmakers want help from Film Independent is with finding audiences and distribution for their films. “We want to be helping more with that,” says Welsh.
To that end the Jameson Find Your Audience award of $40,000 to 50,000 goes to one film that has reached audiences through non-traditional methods. This year “Call Me Kuchu” went through their doc lab and will come out later this year via Cinedigm.

In effect, we need organizations like Film Independent to support the indie community because the U.S. government does not; they help to fill a void that doesn’t exist in other countries. 

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