Jean Prewitt on IFTA's American Film Market, Her Proudest Moment This Year (Q&A)

Kevin Scanlon

The indie film guru discusses cracking the Chinese market, working with the MPAA's Chris Dodd and how the AFM has changed over the years.

After spending nearly a decade as a lobbyist in Washington for film, TV and technology companies, Jean Prewitt joined the Independent Film & Television Alliance in April 2000 as president and 18 months later was named CEO . During her tenure, she has positioned IFTA as a global voice for movie and TV independents, speaking out on issues from net neutrality to piracy. In September, the IFTA board renewed her contract through 2015. Prewitt recently talked to THR about her organization’s mission and the evolution of the IFTA’s American Film Market.

The Hollywood Reporter: IFTA now has a Washington presence. Why is that important? 
Prewitt: Up through my predecessors, AFMA would have an issue where they’d go to Washington to lobby, but it was very much, “Oh, on Tuesday, we’d better get on a plane and go do it.” Shortly after I came in, we established a relationship with a full-time government relations firm in D.C. and put a lot of energy and effort into establishing the brand for independents there. We go back and forth several times a year. We have active involvement in a number of U.S. government negotiations and trade committees. The most recent high-profile example was this year’s U.S.-China film agreement, which we actually had started with our colleagues seven or eight years ago by petitioning the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office to complain to the World Trade Organization about the lack of opportunity for U.S. films in China. Eventually, after the WTO came down with a decision and the USTR had to do a negotiation with China to identify where a remedy could be put in place, we became even more active. The MPAA also was working with the USTR, but we wanted to be sure that the ultimate agreement reflected the needs of the independents.

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THR: How do you work with the MPAA, and how are you different than they are? 
Prewitt: Step one in understanding the difference is that the MPAA does not represent our members. They represent their members, who are six very large companies [Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros.] whose business model increasingly over the past 10 to 15 years has been widely divergent from the business model followed by the independents — not only in the U.S. but in the rest of the world. The difference is in the process under which our members seek distribution and finance their films. Our members are taking an idea into the marketplace, preselling, working with distributors, getting the bank loan, finding a way to finance it and then going back out to distributors — who frankly by then, in most cases, are regarded as partners. Since they have the same interest you do in making sure that the film is as strong as it can be, that it’s completed and that it’s released in the territory — that’s a completely different process than the studios’. They write a check, and then they make decisions based upon filling up their own pipeline. Economically and in terms of the relationship with the local countries overseas, those are totally different.

THR: What happened and what’s going on now with the Stop Online Piracy Act? 
Prewitt: The only part of SOPA and PIPA [Protect IP Act] that was of particular importance to our members was what I call the follow-the-money provisions. Obviously, the small independents are not out spending a lot of money chasing down everybody that’s ever downloaded anything, and they’re not filing lawsuits in record numbers against individual people. What we were concerned with, and what SOPA and PIPA attempted to reach, were the big players — the companies that are making a lot of money off other people’s content, not the consumers, who, frankly, you want to be your customers.

THR: How often do you communicate with MPAA chairman and CEO Chris Dodd?
Prewitt: It depends on the time of the year. He and I spent quite a bit of time together in Cannes. I took him to visit a lot of our members to have conversations about what’s concerning them, but also so that he got a real sense of the nonfestival side of Cannes — how the marketplace really works. We try to do the same thing once or twice a year here. And we try to do a lunch or a dinner if one of us is in D.C.

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THR: How has the AFM evolved?
Prewitt: When I came on board, which was just about the time Jonathan Wolf took over running the market, what was fairly obvious was that the overall marketplace had changed. AFM when it started in 1981 was a group of true sales agents. Over time, those sales companies realized that to supply their buyers worldwide, they had to back in and become producers. The interests of the companies that we started with stopped being exclusively about export, and the market became more about putting together projects.

THR: Given your schedule, do you have time for vacation?
Prewitt: I grew up in Hawaii in Kailua, outside of Honolulu, and my nephew still lives there. I go back because it’s easy from here but also because I have friends there, and I catch up. I just got back from Venice, Italy, which was a five-day vacation.

THR: What are you most proud of from the past year?
Prewitt: Three women who were interns for me in the 1990s have ended up with high-level government appointments. One is Victoria Espinel, the Intellectual Property Enforcement coordinator, and one is the only woman in the top ranks at a U.N. organization. There was a week this year each was featured prominently in the newspaper. That was my proudest moment.