Gotham Awards: Byrd on a wire

The longtime IFP executive director charts a new course after 18 years

Producer Ted Hope had a problem: He had successfully sabotaged a special New York screening of "The Brothers McMullen." It was 1994, and the film needed to premiere at Sundance, where a recut version had just been accepted; if it showed in Gotham first, Sundance might rescind its offer. A "technical malfunction" was plotted for 10 minutes into the film after a key comedic scene, which would end the screening. But he couldn't do it alone.

"We had to confess the problem to Michelle," Hope remembers. "She respected our showmanship and the position we were in and allowed it to happen. It created an uproar, and she was later able to massage it with everyone, so we weren't attacked. There's always been this human side, a willingness to bend rules that captures the spirit of independent film with her."

Conjuring up the various heroic deeds of "Michelle" -- that would be Michelle Byrd, executive director of the Independent Film Project (recently renamed Independent Filmmaker's Project) -- lately has become something of a hobby around New York's independent film community. Having headed the IFP since 1997 (she joined in 1992 as the director's assistant), Byrd has spent the past 18 years helping aspiring filmmakers get financing, get press, get out the door and into the world.

And, in the odd case, get sabotaged.

But this year's Gotham Independent Film Awards, which Byrd helped create, will be her final hurrah. She'll be voluntarily stepping down from the organization, leaving a career that spanned indie film's rise, corporate absorption and current reinvention.

While the exit came as a surprise to much of the outside world when it was announced this year, the IFP board had been apprised she would likely not be signing back on as much as two years ago.

"When you're some place for a really long time, you're carrying a lot of weight," Byrd says. "Your exit has to be your legacy, so you try to leave in a clean, graceful way. It was important on a personal level, since I'd been at IFP so long, that I didn't develop a sense of negativity about it."

Not that there's even a hint of negativity behind her departure -- Byrd just feels her work is done and, at the age of 43, it's the right time to transition into something new. She has accomplished much during her tenure, from the reinvention of the annual IFP Market (now called Independent Film Week), to the expansion of the No Borders International Co-Production Market, to the mentorship program known as the Independent Filmmaker Lab. Along the way, Byrd became something of a beacon for new filmmakers, and a key for producers and buyers -- many of whom equate IFP with Byrd herself.

She has helped IFP mature from its original 1978 inception, when it was born out of an NEA grant. When she took the main stage as executive director, a new vision was needed for what Hope calls an "entrenched" organization.

"The attitude was, 'We have the IFP Market, and that's enough,' " Hope recalls. "Michelle took on the mission of year-round regular programming for the membership, and engineered the transformation to keep it relevant."

Recognizing that filmmakers had evolving commercial expectations for their independent films, Byrd worked to create opportunities for newcomers to get their work made and seen.

"The one thing I felt I could provide IFP was a sense of being grounded, having people in the organization engaged in helping artists make their work in whatever way they needed to be supported," Byrd says.

Filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden may not have gotten financing for their 2006 film "Half Nelson," via No Borders, but Byrd helped them in other ways, Boden recalls.

"If you've been part of their market, they really track you, put you under their wings," she says. "When we first made 'Half Nelson,' Michelle hosted this amazing word-of-mouth screening before the movie came out, so important people in the independent film community could speak highly of the film."

Additionally, Hope credits her as the "coordinator behind the scenes" during the 2003 fight waged against the MPAA over the banning of screeners. "Michelle recognized early on what a core issue it was for independents, and it was crucial that she was there with us," he says.

Over the years, the IFP not only benefited from Byrd's approach and passion for filmmaking, but in part that she is a black woman -- a rare bird indeed in the independent filmmaking world.

"Having an organization that's not about color, being run by a woman of color, that's huge for people of a specific generation," Byrd says. "And that feels welcoming to certain filmmakers who maybe haven't felt welcome in the independent film space. They think, 'That organization must be an inclusive place.' "

Now, as she prepares her graceful exit, Byrd is helping the board reconsider how it moves into the future -- and just how inclusive it wants to be with the general public.

"Does IFP exist in an insular world?" she asks. "Should it be only known to people working in the industry, and in the community for making independent films, or should it have a more public interface? That's a decision that needs to be developed."

A decision that will be made by her successor, who is expected to be named soon. As for where Byrd flies off to next -- that's also still under wraps. "I'm not a filmmaker, so it's not like I've been waiting out my time at IFP so I can direct a movie," she says. "What I am thinking about is what new opportunities open when you close a door."
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