Evolutionary thinking

A transformation from Wild West show to networking haven has made the IFP Market and Conference an essential stop for up-and-coming filmmakers.

When Lance Weiler arrives at the registration headquarters for the 28th annual IFP Market and Conference, he will have with him a finished version of his film, "Head Trauma," but no distribution deal. He last came to New York's biggest indie market two years ago, when "Trauma" was heading into postproduction. The time before that, he was shopping his first writing/producing/directing project, 1998's "The Last Broadcast."

As much as anyone can be, Weiler is an IFP Market veteran.

But he says he has no interest in using the market as, well, a market. "It's more about networking," Weiler says. "It's more about letting people know the project is there. The relationships I built with filmmakers and industry people (in 2004) are coming around, and the seeds I sowed (then) are growing."

He is not alone. Although it was once a free-for-all of unfinished projects begging for funds or grants, the market and conference, running through Sept. 21, has evolved substantially over the last few years. Now, the events -- which are coordinated by the Independent Feature Project and attract approximately 3,000 attendees annually -- function more as an extended meet-and-greet for filmmakers and executives from across the indie film sector and less as a venue for transacting business.

Festival-fatigued distributors say they couldn't be more thankful about the shift. "One thing the IFP did and needed to do with great wisdom and acumen is to acknowledge that we didn't need another market. We certainly didn't need one that close to the Toronto Film Festival," ThinkFilm head of distribution Mark Urman says. "They understood they could serve a greater purpose instead of being brokers or having a tent show in SoHo. They could create a networking opportunity, a forum, and create the one thing New York sorely needed -- a sense of community about the film business here."

Taking place under the auspices of Independent Film Week, the IFP Market includes fewer than 200 projects, approximately 50 seminars and a series of special digital screenings of films that have some connection to the market, including First Look's "A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints." The New York premiere of Dito Montiel's directorial debut, which turned heads when it premiered at January's Sundance Film Festival, concluded opening-day festivities Sunday.

The main frenzy of activity, however, will happen behind the scenes during as many as 1,600 meetings facilitated by IFP organizers and executive director Michelle Byrd, and during the panel sessions at the conference. This year's panels are organized by Filmmaker magazine and include daylong examinations of subjects such as "The Global Marketplace," "Making Your First Feature," "The Real Deal on Deals," "The Truth About Nonfiction" and "What's Next."

"Panels can be a reality check," IFC Films vp marketing Ryan Werner says. "A lot of people make a film without knowing the realities of the marketplace. The panels and the conference are important because they pretty much draw the top people in New York and around the country to actually speak about the reality."

For Urman, those panels are useful for another reason. "Sitting in the green room at the IFP before I go on a panel with all of the people who do what I do for a living is some of the most civilized contact I have with those people," he says. "Otherwise, we're just being cagey outside of screenings at a film festival pretending we didn't like what we just loved, so no one knows we're trying to buy it. It's amazing how collegial we can be if permitted."

But the market and conference are just one component of IFP. Byrd says her organization increasingly has cast itself not only as a bridge connecting struggling filmmakers and small indie companies, but also as a place to nurture talent and educate moviegoers.

"(In the past), IFP has really been mostly focused on the interaction between filmmakers, content creators and buyers," she says. "Now, we're trying to fill another gap, which is, 'Oh, there's all this work out there, and what's being done to instigate new audiences and filmmakers? What are organizations like ours doing to concretely support them and their efforts?'"

"It's not always about just a writer getting their script to a producer," adds David D'Alessio, director of development and production for Andrew Lauren Prods., which co-executive produced 2005's "The Squid and the Whale." "A lot of the time, it's about a producer not being able to find good writing. We need that bridge to work both ways, and IFP bridges that gap for us. It's great to get these cool writers while they're at an early stage because you can grow with them."

On average, IFP is helping to develop as many as 300 projects through various programs, and the nonprofit's unwavering support has proven critical to many filmmakers and their projects. Take ThinkFilm's critically acclaimed August release "Half Nelson," which originally came to the market in 2004 as a script. Writer-director Ryan Fleck and writer-producer Anna Boden showed up hoping to obtain financing for the film, which chronicles a unique relationship between a middle-school teacher battling a drug addiction and one of his students. They were unable to land any financial backing, but they did go home with dozens of important new contacts.

As in Weiler's case, the contacts are what have paid off in the long run.

"It was a pretty special place to go in terms of networking and meeting people," Boden says. "We met a ton of people who have been incredibly supportive of us. Everybody (at IFP) is very approachable and involved in ways that other organizations can make feel institutional, but with them it's very personal."

While Urman didn't get wind of "Nelson" until the finished film premiered at Sundance, he says that the project's IFP provenance gave it immediate credibility in his eyes. "I saw the film, and it blew me away," he says.

Even after "Nelson" had a distributor, IFP continued to work on the film's behalf, scheduling a special July screening and cocktail reception for the movie at board member (and Antidote Films president) Jeff Levy-Hinte's home. Guests included Picturehouse president Bob Berney.

Similarly, IFP has been instrumental in working with John Cameron Mitchell on his latest feature, "Shortbus," also slated to be released domestically through ThinkFilm. Mitchell made the film using some of the goods and services he picked up in 2001, when he received the Gotham Emerging Director Award for his directorial debut, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," during the IFP-sponsored Gotham Awards.

His prizes included music clearances for songs on a label now owned by Sony BMG, but the clearances expired after one year, and the record company has insisted that they be paid for the music Mitchell used in the film, a sexually explicit look at the lives of a group of New Yorkers.

Byrd and IFP currently are negotiating with the company to convince them to waive the fees. "Michelle has been lobbying Sony on our behalf," "Shortbus" producer Howard Gertler says. "We're still waiting for final word."

Gertler says Byrd's decision to step in is not unusual. "The IFP has been more effective in the last couple of years for producers like us and directors like John, which has been nice," he says. "Michelle is very responsive to helping us with things like the award, and that has very real results."

Ultimately, that kind of personal touch might make the IFP's nonmarket market more valuable to producers and directors than some of the other high-profile events on the independent-film calendar. Weiler, for one, says he appreciates the fact that he can use the market to make important contacts and that he can rely on IFP as a support system to help him finish his films and get them out into the world.

"The thing that's beautiful about the IFP Market is that it's what you want to take from it," Weiler says. "If you're clear about the objectives you have or what your goals are, then a lot of those things can be accomplished within the market. It's a little of everything."