Q&A: Michelle Byrd

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As the Independent Feature Project's executive director for 11 years, Michelle Byrd has helped the organization -- and its market and conference -- evolve with the independent film business.

But while that once meant helping finished product like 1990's "Metropolitan" or 1995's "The Brothers McMullen" -- or even more recently 2006's "Half Nelson" -- get noticed, today the newly named Independent Film Week aims to help approximately 150 filmmakers with far more nascent product.

Byrd spoke with The Hollywood Reporter's Randee Dawn.

Hollywood Reporter: Each year, the IFP/market combo seems to undergo a face-lift. It's a market, but it isn't a market the way Cannes or Berlin is. So what is it now?

Michelle Byrd: In the old days, when there weren't those markets, it made sense to call this a market. "Forum" is more accurate, because it's about relationships and the concrete notion of "I have this project, and I'm looking for XYZ's support on it, financial and otherwise." Without question, the goal is: We're trying to help people find business relationships for their projects -- but without it having the burden of trying to play in the professional sellers' landscape.

THR:
Who attends the market and conference?

Byrd: Acquisitions people, international sales agents, international TV broadcasters -- in the U.S., definitely the cable outlets. Anyone who's interested in looking for American independent work. Some film commissions, because they can tout their tax incentives, and also some festivals come -- Berlin, Rotterdam, Sundance, SXSW. Because we're not about projects that are completed, this allows festivals to get a sense of what's going to be ready in two years' time. They can be aligned with cultivating those relationships.

THR: At one time, there were titles that immediately went on to win awards or festivals and it was easier to point to the market as having a hand in that. Why don't we see those success stories now?

Byrd: It's the reality of the independent world changing. Once, a distributor might have put their film into our program because they were looking for international sales or something. The event is a totally different animal now. You can't compare apples to apples -- we're not for finished films. People now come to our program pretty unencumbered in terms of the ability of someone to get involved. Whereas when you go into a film festival, those are films that are completely done and ready to be acquired.

THR: Has there been an effort to put filmmakers' product online to help those who want to take meetings at the market read scripts or view work ahead of time?

Byrd: That's come up. With documentaries, we send out a three- to five-minute piece of each to everybody who's taking documentary meetings. Those will probably be online (eventually); we just didn't get to it this year. As for scripts -- we don't want to be in a position of disseminating other peoples' work, and in terms of a practical reality of people having time to (read them), that's not going to happen. The general sentiment is that it's likely better to take a meeting anyway -- because in meetings sometimes things are revealed. You might meet someone who has a great vision, then you read their script and you go, "My God, what is this?" You might have missed out on something great because you weren't interested in the work if you'd read it first.

THR: IFP is a nonprofit, but how important are the funds the market generates to its revenue?

Byrd: It can't run at a deficit, but it's not like we look at it as some kind of moneymaker for the organization. It's not a fundraising venture. The Gotham Awards help pay for our year-round programs, but Independent Film Week is basically free. We got rid of almost all of those acceptance fees -- you just have to be a member of IFP. Our money comes from a combination of corporate support, philanthropic/governmental support and earned revenue.

THR: So financially, do you walk a thin line?

Byrd: Finances are all right. We ran at a very modest -- and when I say "modest," I mean like a few thousand dollars -- profit last year. This year will be stronger and better for us. But it's tough times for not-for-profits, and IFP has been cautious about growth and how to manage growth. So now we're looking for more opportunities to diversify revenue streams without jeopardizing the quality of programs.
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