New York: IFP 30th anniversary


When writer-director Tom Kalin brought his first feature, “Swoon,” to the Independent Feature Project’s 1991 Independent Feature Film Market, he recalls attending “a charming, homespun affair” with his fellow producers, Christine Vachon and James Schamus. While there, a three-minute reel of “Swoon’s” best images and moments at the market captured the attention of acquisitions execs from Fine Line and PBS’ “American Playhouse.” As a result, Kalin headed off to Sundance the following January with the film presold and on its way to being viewed as a milestone of “new queer cinema.”

That was then. Today, the Big Apple’s IFP market celebrates its 30th anniversary with a new name — Independent Film Week, running Sept. 14-19 — and is a mix of old visions and new strategies. Through the years, however, IFP’s goal has remained consistent: to open doors and create possibilities for aspiring filmmakers with plenty of talent but little money and few connections. It’s mentoring on a grand scale for those who need that extra leg up.

But the onetime “homespun affair” has gone through as many permutations as the independent film industry itself, and that’s part of its intent. On return visits as a panelist, Kalin says he can recall the “whooshing sound” of money as it poured into the market, which during the 1990s became perceived as a crucial element in a rapidly expanding indie-film economy. For a while, it was seen as a farm system that fed movies to festivals like Sundance.

Still, he says, “the market always seemed like an environment that produced thoughtful, difficult movies. It wasn’t a place where you brought a topical, salable comedy.”

Float Like a Butterfly

The fact that the market is seen today as a crossroads of commerce at all is an interesting twist on its origins. When Sandra Schulberg founded the Independent Feature Project in 1979, her aims and methods were rooted in 1960s radical activism, though her goals were somewhat conservative.

“It was a widespread but inchoate urge among a broad and diverse range of independent filmmakers who were trying to gain access to the theaters,” she says. “We weren’t trying to kill the establishment. We were trying to join the establishment.”

With the emergence of such ferociously un-Hollywood directors as John Cassavetes, Barbara Kopple and Rob Nilsson, “we had come to a point where American independent film as a movement was in a nascent form,” remembers Warrington Hudlin, one of Schulberg’s founding board members at IFP (and today the head of the Black Filmmakers Foundation). “That movement needed some kind of institutional manifestation that connected us to the audience.”

Alongside a retrospective of American independent films that ran as a sidebar to the 1979 New York Film Festival, Schulberg’s new institution also hosted a filmmaker conference and a film market designed to attract “pioneer buyers” from Europe and elsewhere. Over the succeeding three decades, the annual fall gathering has been refined, though the “market” descriptor has always been something of a misnomer, says longtime IFP staffer Milton Tabbot. As he sees it, the event has always been less about commercial transactions than “making connections, finding the right partners and fostering relationships.”

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, IFP’s annual New York market was having a hand in many of the era’s zeitgeist-capturing films, including 1984’s “Blood Simple,” 1991’s “Slacker,” 1994’s “Clerks,” 1991’s “Poison” and 1995’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”

By the time Tabbot first joined the IFP in 1995, the market had become an enormous, impromptu film festival that was virtually uncurated, crammed with movies that varied widely in quality and competence. “If you were coming to the market as an acquisitions person, it could be pretty overwhelming,” he says. “You’re talking about more than 500 projects in various stages of development, over eight days.”

This overload stemmed from IFP’s original sense of mission, when, as Schulberg puts it, “we tried not to exclude people, and tried to make it a broad-based organization. We weren’t judging each others’ work — in fact, quite the opposite. We were showcasing as many people’s work as possible. We had to err in one direction or the other.”

Tabbot remembers the mid-’90s as the “latter days of the ‘chicken soup’ period,” referring to a legendary promotional gimmick in which a filmmaker ladled out soup to lure prospective viewers. Other attendees recall seeing actors in dinosaur suits, a tank parked on a lower Manhattan street, and a screening hosted by a group of young men clad only in briefs.

“At the beginning, all of that was fun,” Tabbot says. “By the late ’90s, it was not so fun,” and buyers and filmmakers alike reported that the event had grown unmanageable.

Shrink to Survive

Michelle Byrd took over as executive director of IFP in 1997, and under her leadership the market has gradually become smaller, more tightly curated and far more focused. This year there will be only 156 projects in progress, and in recent years the IFP market has moved away from showcasing finished films. They haven’t accepted any completed fiction work since around 2004.

The reason behind the change is simple, Tabbot says. “There are several hundred more film festivals today than there were in 1979. It was difficult to find really good work that wasn’t going into the festival circuit.”

And this year, IFP’s rebranded Independent Film Week won’t showcase any completed documentaries, either. The hope is to boost three kinds of projects: writers and directors with scripts seeking production contacts (Emerging Narratives), narrative works with some financing attached seeking international financing (No Borders), and documentaries at some stage of production or postproduction, most a year or two from completion (Spotlight on Documentaries).

The removal of the word “market” officially from the event’s name isn’t happenstance, either; organizers felt it was necessary to distinguish it from massive industry trade shows like the American Film Market.

“Changing the name definitely transcends the symbolic,” says producer Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, the current chair of IFP’s board. “It’s truth in packaging, so people don’t come with wrong expectations. The old name set up certain behaviors and dispositions that were not helpful.”

Launching into its fourth decade, IFP faces numerous challenges, among them a world where independent film, as Samuel Goldwyn Films acquisitions head Peter Goldwyn observes, now often means a mechanism for outsourcing Hollywood-scale pictures to producers who then sell their distribution rights back to the studios. It’s also a world where theatrical distribution of truly independent cinema is already giving way to a mix of home video and digital-download delivery that no one yet understands.

“The thing about all these new avenues is that good movies will always rise to the surface,” Goldwyn says. “That’s why an organization like IFP should always be focused on content first and foremost. It doesn’t matter how you’re distributing; it matters what you’re distributing.”

Founder Schulberg, on the other hand, says today’s IFP “faces challenges that are very similar and very different to those we faced in 1979. IFP and other leaders in film culture are all wrestling with the issue of what the new distribution mechanisms will be, and how we not only nurture filmmakers but help them support themselves. I don’t see it as going backward 30 years, but as going forward into a very exciting future.”

And in This Corner …

Highlights from the conference portion of Independent Film Week

Kevin Smith
Sept. 14, 5:30 p.m.
Director Smith (1994’s “Clerks” and the upcoming Weinstein Co.’s “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”) kicks off the “Conversations With …” series and discusses how to use the Internet to market and promote your film.

The State of the Industry
Sept. 16, 5:30 p.m., Haft Auditorium at F.I.T.
Picturehouse’s Bob Berney moderates a discussion of where the industry has been — and where it’s going — with indie experts.

Know Your Digital Rights
Sept. 17, 10:00 a.m., Haft Auditorium at F.I.T.
Infinicine’s Laure Parsons leads Steven Beer (Greenburg Traurig), Janet Brown (Cinetic Rights Management) and Joe Swanberg (2007’s
“Hannah Takes the Stairs”) in a discussion about which digital rights filmmakers can sell and which they should keep.

Robert Greenwald
Sept. 18, 11:30 a.m., Haft Auditorium at F.I.T.
Filmmaker Greenwald (2004’s “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism”) speaks about using movies to engineer social change, as well as building communities between moviemakers.

A full schedule of all conference panels can be found at