IFP conference hooks up filmmakers, financiers

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Consider it speed dating for the indie set. In its 29-year history, Manhattan's IFP Market, which started Sunday and runs though Thursday (and the accompanying Filmmaker Conference, now in its third year, which runs through Friday), has built a reputation as the primary place for independent filmmakers to rub elbows with financiers in the kind of intimate, relaxed setting ideally suited to relationship building. The point of the event is networking, not watching movies, though opinions vary on whether the market is actually an effective venue for making production or development deals.

Still, boosters consider it North America's principal industry showcase for independent films in development. "We've learned how to grow up," says veteran independent film consultant and producer Robert Hawk, who serves on the market's advisory committee. "We have a mature, well-managed market."

That wasn't always the case. A little more than 10 years ago, the annual gathering hosted by the organization formerly known as the Independent Feature Project was a wild and woolly affair, with several hundred films on display in varying states of readiness and quality. For every landmark like Richard Linklater's 1991 indie, "Slacker," that emerged from the market, there were dozens of projects described by one frequent attendee as "unwatchable crap and obnoxious promotional gimmicks."

"It became so vast it was a little difficult to manage," says producer Anthony Bregman, who began his industry career as an IFP intern and who now sits on its board. "It was like one of those diners where you open the menu, and it's just so enormous."

Today, a more mature IFP Market has spent "a great deal of time reorganizing, realigning and going back to its core," says board member Jeanne Berney, director of public relations and marketing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. That core is a commitment to the eclectic traditions of New York independent filmmaking, and IFP seems to be inching toward reinventing itself as a service organization that nurtures new talent from conception to postproduction -- and possibly even into distribution.

IFP executive director Michelle Byrd describes the market as simply "an event that's about facilitating access." If the phrase sounds like a nonprofit cliche, its significance for aspiring filmmakers without industry connections is anything but. On a larger scale, Byrd adds, IFP aims to play a role in democratizing an increasingly homogenized media landscape.

"We want to support work that's worthy of support, and we want the public to be able to see a diversity of films," she says. Everything IFP does, she notes, whether through the market, its affiliated conference or other programming, is oriented toward that goal.

As in recent years, IFP's programrs have curated a selection of roughly 180 projects (drawn from some 1,600 submissions), which fall into three distinct groups. In the Emerging Narratives section, aspiring writer-directors can pitch directly to producers, development executives, buyers and agents. In the No Borders section, directors and producers with partly financed or partly completed films seek co-production partners (often, but not exclusively, from overseas). The Spotlight on Documentaries section often involves screening rough cuts or excerpts from projects; it has produced most of the IFP Market's recent success stories, including such discoveries as the Oscar winner "Born Into Brothels" (2004) and 2005's "Mad Hot Ballroom."

There's no question, says Hawk, that the event's primary focus is the nonfiction genre. "The number of quality documentaries available (at the market) is outstanding," he says. "There are buyers for these films, whether it's theatrically or internationally or on TV."

Kathryn Lo, who programs the "Independent Lens" and "POV" series for PBS, will be back at the IFP Market for her second straight year. She seconds Hawk's endorsement of the range and caliber of docs in development, noting, "It was a chance to get in on the ground floor of a project and see if there's a fit."

Of course, there have been success stories among the narrative films as well. Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden brought their script for "Half Nelson" from the Sundance Screenwriters Lab to the IFP Market in 2003. The financiers who ultimately backed the drama, Alex Orlovsky and Jamie Patricof, also attended the market that year, connecting with Fleck and Boden weeks later.

"We had meetings with producers, and they felt important at the time," Fleck says. "If we hadn't met Jamie so soon after the market, those leads and contacts might well have come to fruition. We'll never know."

Writer and performance artist Miranda July left her inaugural visit to the IFP Market feeling dejected. "People said all kinds of certifiably insulting things," July remembers. "You meet these people and you sense the formulas: They want to finance an indie movie that's going to win Oscars. We didn't walk out feeling that we had met people that would finance (our project)."

Actually, she had, and the result was 2005's "Me and You and Everyone We Know," a quirky sleeper hit that managed to earn plenty of critical acclaim -- even if it didn't take home any Academy Awards.

In what seems an annual refrain, Byrd is promising to juice up the screenplay-based Emerging Narratives section, and thanks to sponsorship help from Panasonic, IFP plans to award camera packages and postproduction aid to a few aspiring filmmakers from that section whose proposed projects have budgets less than $500,000.

At the other end of the filmmaking process, Byrd sees IFP at some point helping to distribute films that have been developed through the market or IFP's lab programs. "It's all about how we can keep working with our projects, and the people from those projects, so we have results that are specific," she says.

The IFP Market's modest scale and quirkiness -- at least in comparison to the bigger West Coast and European film markets -- are clearly among the factors that make it a beloved event. "It's a great place to uncover gems in a raw state," Bregman says.

Hawk adds, "It's worth every penny for the schmoozing opportunities and to find out how the business works up close."

Veteran distributor and director Jeff Lipsky, himself a former IFP board member, is less convinced: "I wish this pairing of projects and funding was a year-round program, where people weren't making split-second, rash decisions but took a little bit more time," he says.

"Film production is a marathon, not a sprint," Lipsky continues. "It's also a question whether this process is about 'development' -- which I think is anathema to true independent filmmaking -- or about faith in the written word. We have the most prolific and vigorous guerrilla filmmaking tradition in the world, and we don't want to screw it up. Still, if IFP really has the ability and desire to marry talent to money, that's heaven."  


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