I juggle a lot of hats in this inspiring, and often bewildering, game we call documentary. Program Director at the LEF Foundation is one of them. Programmer at The DocYard is another. And a third, of which I am very proud, is Producer of the non-fiction feature film (currently in post-production) Street Fighting Man. It was with this last hat on that I set off to New York for Independent Film Week, last week.
Indie Film Week is a program of the Independent Film Project, one of the oldest and largest organizations serving independent filmmakers in the country. Independent Film Week is just one of their many programs designed to help eager filmmakers take their new ideas to the next level. The week features two primary arms: the Project Forum and the Filmmaker Conference. The Project Forum provides an opportunity for filmmakers to share their work with funders, broadcasters, agents, and festival programmers in the hopes of finding a partner(s) inspired by what they see. Narrative features and international projects get a showcase here; but in my case, I was representing Street Fighting Man, along with Director Andrew James, at the Spotlight on Documentaries (along with an impressive array of other projects including Boston-based filmmaker James Demo’s film The Peacemaker and last year’s CIFF pitch-winner Jesse Epstein’s Mosquito). While this fast-paced, thrill ride of a meet/meat market is happening on one side of the street, the Film Conference pulls some of the brightest minds in the business together to talk about new models, great case studies, and provide food for thought for attending filmmakers.
I have attended IFW in the past as a representative of the different foundations I’ve worked for over the years. However, this is the first time that I attended the conference as a filmmaker. Despite my experiences of the past, being on the “other side of the table” made for a completely new experience.
Staff at the IFP, Milton Talbott foremost among them, were wonderful in getting us prepared before heading to New York. The staff are incredible advocates, acting as trusted voices to the industry delegates attending the forum and making suggestions to them about projects they feel might be a good fit. We definitely benefited from the behind the scenes work they did for us. Among the primary activities during the forum are short ½ hour meetings with broadcasters, funders, agents, festival programmers, distributors, etc. In this short time, you get to know your industry counterpart and you pitch your project to them. The IFP have been experimenting with the tech side of their operation, unveiling a few new features this year. Prior to our arrival, we were able to see which industry delegates were viewing our material. This was particularly useful in preparing our pitch, based on what level of familiarity we gleaned the person we were meeting might have with the work given what they looked at online.
During the week, each filmmaker also has a half-hour block to show their work in progress. These screenings were rarely attended by industry representatives. However, they were frequented by filmmakers. For me, aside from an assortment of event screenings and cocktail hours, these short viewings provided a fantastic way to learn more about the people I was sharing this conference with. I was inspired by much of the work I saw. Though this is essentially a competitive environment, I walked away from the interactions with other filmmakers with a real sense of camaraderie and collegiality.
My biggest question at the end of the week is likely the one asked by every participant of the forum over the many years of its existence: Was this worth it? Did anything come of this? Everyone asks you: Did you have good meetings? And I can only answer – yes. They felt good. We met with good possible partners for the film. We had serious conversations about the work with industry folks who clearly did their homework and gave us thoughtful and thought-provoking feedback. But you don’t leave these meetings with a green light. I didn’t see a lot of high-fiving going around. These are the starts of conversations. The biggest value to them was meeting these representatives in person. Despite the freedom and flexibility a digital life in the ether has brought us, I believe that nothing replaces the value of one-on-one, in-person contact. When we follow up with these people, it will be with the confidence that they know us and our work, and have expressed interest in learning more. That is the gift of Independent Film Week.
Here are just a few of the things I can share to those who may be fortunate to take this journey in the future:
- As much as Andrew and I practiced our pitch before attending, and honed it to reflect the research we did for each individual meeting, much of our rehearsals got thrown out the window in the meetings themselves. These were organic conversations with people who care about cinema and who are sincerely looking for work they think fits their missions. Your best presentation is to know your film inside and out (which is where rehearsal IS helpful), convey your passion for it, communicate the significance of your story to this cultural moment, and understand your potential audience. A half hour is not a long time. If you can get this information conveyed in that window, you’re in a good spot.
- Get business cards and postcards. Be able to leave something behind so that these people can follow up with you if they would like. And take THEIR cards. Follow up with them. Make your contact personal.
- Do research on the industry representatives you are meeting with. What kind of films do they typically support? How is your project similar, or perhaps a new approach? Demonstrate that you know their market and mission, and how your project might fit into it, in your meeting.
- Be open to criticism. Sometimes, you won’t find a match. But you do earn a brief audience with some of the top minds in the field. Listen to them. They might not always say something you want to hear, but these people are taking time to think about your work with you. That type of personal consultation is a rare gift. Honor it for what it is.
- Take every opportunity you can to hang out with the other filmmakers and watch their work. Some of my most lasting memories from our week in NYC are about the artists I met who inspired me and who I hope to see on the festival circuit when we all complete our films. These are your comrades and possibly future collaborators. Get their cards too.
All in all, it was a wonderful experience. I feel honored that our film was selected to be a part of Independent Film Week. And I know that a view from the other side of the table will inform how I counsel filmmakers approaching LEF for many years to come!