POV’s series producer Yance Ford interviews Milton Tabbot, senior director of programming at IFP for an inside look at the world of independent filmmaking. IFP’s Independent Film Week will run from September 19-24 in New York, and IFP’s Filmmaker Conference will run concurrently, from September 19-23.
Yance Ford: What is IFP and what’s your mission as an organization? What’s your role and how long have you been there?
Milton Tabbot: The nonprofit IFP is the nation’s oldest and largest organization of independent filmmakers and also their premier advocate. Currently, IFP represents a network of 10,000 filmmakers in New York City and around the world. Through workshops, seminars, conferences, mentorships and Filmmaker Magazine, IFP schools our members in the art, technology and business of independent filmmaking. IFP believes that independent films, driven by a filmmaker’s unique vision, address issues and disseminate stories and points of view that may be too risky for those who are constrained by commercial considerations. Today, to create a truly independent film and make sure it is seen takes more technological sophistication and business acumen than ever before. Having helped build the infrastructure of the independent film movement and long nurtured its community, IFP is committed to addressing the changes and challenges the industry confronts.
I started with IFP as a volunteer in 1995, working at that year’s Independent Feature Film Market (now called Independent Film Week), and came on staff in 1996, really jazzed about being at this intersection of the creative and business communities in the independent world. Currently, as senior director of programming, I supervise a number of programs, primarily the documentary components of both the Project Forum of Independent Film Week and our Independent Filmmaker Labs, and also our fiscal sponsorship program and certain components of our annual Gotham Independent Film Awards. Equally important in these and other programmatic areas are my colleagues — IFP Deputy Director Amy Dotson and Program Manager Rose Vincelli.
Yance: Independent Film Week has been presented for 31 consecutive years. That’s a long view of the independent film industry that very few organizations can claim. What changes have you seen in the industry over time, and how has IFP adapted to those changes?
Milton: Well, just taking Independent Film Week alone (it was the founding program of IFP in 1979) — its timeline does correspond with the growth of “independent film” as we know it throughout the 1980s and its veritable explosion at the end of that decade and into the ’90s — not that there weren’t independent film being made before that. That period has been well documented in John Pierson and Christine Vachon‘s books, among others, so I won’t recount the history, but suffice it to say that the first 10-15 years was an exciting time that was not unlike changes that had occurred inside Hollywood in the late ’60s and early ’70s — only this time it was happening outside that system. The IFP and the IFP “Markets” had been created by a group of filmmakers who thought there was not enough attention being paid to this thing called independent American cinema. So at the beginning it was all about defining a movement, getting attention and validity as artists in the culture, and securing outlets for their work. Apart from year-round IFP programs and member services that grew over the years, the IFP Markets provided, at a very basic and fundamental level, a place where this work — and eventually lots of it — could be seen. Because many of the companies acquiring the work in increasing numbers were small and acquisitions based, more than half to two-thirds of work presented were completed films.
The first major shift IFP made to adapting to the changing industry was that as we approached our 20th anniversary, it was clear the landscape had changed significantly Everyone knew what an independent film was; the industry was overwhelmed with the numbers of indie films to sift through; and there were now hundreds of film festivals where independent films could be screened. So by the end of the ’90s, we literally reduced the event to half the size, and became a much more selective and vetted showcase of projects. But it was still largely a screenings-driven event. Another key addition in the ’90s, as a reaction to interest by companies of getting involved at an earlier stage, the desire to continue to attract experienced filmmakers with new projects to our event, and an interest in expanding international relationships, was the addition of the No Borders co-production section. This would prove to be an integral component that would influence the continuing evolution of the structure of the event in response to the marketplace.
Yance: What’s changed about this event since making the switch from “IFP Market” to “Independent Film Week” a few years ago?
Milton: In a sense, we have fully embraced and made central what was always a unique feature of the event that set it apart from a festival or film market. From the earliest years, works-in-progress, both documentary and fiction, comprised a large portion of the projects presented. We started industry or “networking” meetings in the early ’90s. We now use the No Borders model of industry request co-production meetings across all sections. The Project Forum of Independent Film Week is now a meetings and networking-driven event, with the goal being the facilitation of relationships between industry and filmmakers with projects at the development, production or post-production stage. There are no longer completed films presented. There are pitch screenings of work samples for documentaries and show reels of our lab projects, but those are now a supporting element — not the driving force. In terms of project numbers, it is a smaller and even more selective program, and the filmmakers no longer pay participation fees. We are “investing” in them through our support, which continues in various ways post-event.
Yance: How have filmmakers changed over time?
Milton: In general, filmmakers are just massively more educated about the industry and about the business of film. Some part of that is due to the role IFP and other organizations have played over the years, and much is due to the incredible wealth of information a click away at any time. And filmmakers — even the younger ones — just seem more prepared and professional in these forums. The tough times kind of require it, but it’s definitely something we have tried to instill.
Yance: It’s an intense experience for filmmakers whose projects are accepted into Emerging Narrative, No Borders or Spotlight on Docs. What kind of advice do you give filmmakers to help them make it through the week?
Milton: Well, it’s intense because of their hopes and expectations. Partly it’s just pacing oneself and having the stamina for multiple days of face-to-face social interaction and information intake: get rest, take vitamins. But primarily it’s to relax and be prepared to articulate what you’re trying to do in your work. Because the event has changed to the degree that it has as I’ve noted, there’s much less energy needed to attract attention or even to find people. We do a lot of that work in advance getting information on projects to the industry — it’s you guys at POV and your industry colleagues who have a lot of homework assignments! For filmmakers, it’s about having realistic expectations and knowing it’s just the first of many conversations to come about their projects.
Yance: IFW has always been exquisitely timed. The industry is just coming off of Toronto but filmmakers everywhere are racing to make the Sundance Film Festival deadline. Right at this exciting (if a little under-slept, I know) moment in the doc world, IFW rolls out a slew of projects that nobody’s seen much of or maybe even heard about before. How do you like where the IFW is positioned on the industry calendar?
Milton: Hard to say — it’s the only thing we’ve ever known! It is where it is on the calendar because, historically, the first year started with a sidebar of films presented at the 1979 New York Film Festival (I was there, but not working at IFP) with concurrent industry screenings of new films screened at Magno in order to capitalize on an increased number of buyers in town for the festival. The potential of buyers from outside NYC who were in town after Toronto has always been a consideration. It has been a good position, and continues to be. Apart from never having a summer and always missing Toronto, it’s pretty good.
Yance: POV has discovered several films at the IFP in recent years, including Campaign, by Kazuhiro Soda, which went on to win a Peabody Award this year. From our perspective the Spotlight on Docs is incredibly successful and a little crazy — I think we signed up for 48 meetings this year. How has Spotlight evolved?
Milton: As noted above, Spotlight on Documentaries has evolved from primarily screenings of completed doc features, shorts and works-in-progress, to solely a forum for documentaries at any stage of development or post-production. Interested companies meeting with the filmmakers are those that finance or arrange financing at some level of pre-buy or completion funding, some that do production funding, some foundations, and broadcasters and commissioning editors. There are fewer companies now that do straight acquisitions only, but even some of those do participate to begin tracking projects. The big change in Spotlight on Documentaries has really been the surge of submissions — and in the quality of the work — in the past six years, which has coincided with increased interest in documentaries in the marketplace in general. That really kind of peaked a couple of years ago in terms of theatrical interest, but the quality remains high.
Yance: And while all this industry stuff is happening, the Independent Filmmaker Conference is also happening. Tell me a little about that and how you’ve timed the events for maximum overlap.
Milton: The panel portion of the week has been a part of the event as long as I can remember, but it was consciously developed as a conference steadily during the ’90s. Now the Independent Filmmaker Conference is produced as a standalone but concurrent public event (Lesli Klainberg is producing a bang-up one this year), with the primary audience being filmmakers and others who aren’t participating in the Project Forum. All of the Project Forum filmmakers have access to the Conference, but there’s just too much happening with them over that span of days for them to be consistently attending the conference panels. This year and last, we’ve invited our program alumni from the previous year’s Project Forum to attend for free, so it keeps a dynamic mix of filmmakers from the larger community around during the week.
Yance: Any personal panel favorites this year?
Milton: Apart from the state of the industry panels on distribution, new models, etc. across the week, which are always packed with people you want to hear from (Ted Hope, Christine Vachon, and Lance Weiler all on the same panel!), I’d have to start with the panel on personal documentaries — “Is It All About You?” — which just coincidentally features you, Yance, and other wonderful filmmakers and articulate people like Doug Block, Danae Elon, Jeremiah Zagar and moderated by the debonair David Courier. “Paying the Bills — Sustaining Your Film Career” should also be interesting with Esther Robinson, Jesse Epstein, Rose Troche, Tze Chun and Reva Goldberg from Cinereach.
Yance: A few months ago, Michelle Byrd, executive director of IFP since 1997, but a part of the organization since 1992, announced she would resign at the end of 2009. The industry buzzed with the announcement of her news, and folks are wondering what comes next. How is the IFP preparing for a future without Byrd at the helm?
Milton: Seriously, IFP has been prepared for the future by Michelle Byrd herself: she has maintained a staff that understands the mission, that continually improves and solidifies the core programs and that sets a standard of excellence of performance. All of the changes mentioned here that have kept Independent Film Week (and IFP) relevant and vital have been due to Michelle’s foresight, long-term vision and understanding of an evolving marketplace. She’ll be a tough act to follow, but she leaves IFP in a solid place.