Filmmaker Whit Stillman calls it his favorite film organization, and “Clerks” helmer Kevin Smith says (in the parlance of his characters) that he would have been screwed without it. Reps from every major (and more than a few minor) distributors make it an annual pilgrimage. So why is the Independent Feature Film Market such a mystery?

Now in its 17th year, the market, organized by the nonprofit Independent Feature Project, certainly can’t compete on the name-recognition level with Sundance, much less Cannes. Many Hollywood veterans admit to knowing little about the IFFM beyond a few well-publicized success stories, from Stillman’s “Metropolitan” to last year’s home run, Ed Burns’ “The Brothers McMullen.” And even then, the connection between the market and the breakout films can seem murky.

But for independent filmmakers – particularly the New Yorkers – the IFFM has become a de rigueur first step in plotting the life of an indie film or, more significantly, an indie career. “The IFFM,” says producer Ira Deutchman, “is the beginning of a process, not the end.”

This year, from Sept. 17-24, the IFFM will play host to 700-800 filmmakers and wannabes, who will mingle with about that many distributors, agents, foreign television buyers, cable scouts and development execs. Another 1,000 or so cinephiles are expected.

The filmmakers, of course, will be dreaming of the Deal – for acquisition or development money – but the overwhelming majority will have to content themselves with establishing contacts and learning the ropes of a very tough indie marketplace. “If I come away with one new director or writer-director,” says William Morris agent Erica Spellman-Silverman, “that’s a huge success.”

Catherine Tait, the IFP’s exec director, concurs. “We try to tell new filmmakers to keep their expectations extremely low in terms of signing a deal with Miramax,” she says. “The numbers game simply isn’t in their favor.

“Our emphasis is on the learning process, on building a Rolodex and following up on the contacts you make here. The process of selling a project usually takes at least a year, and the market is the beginning of that process.”

Full slate

This year, that process will begin for a total of 467 projects, including 77 narrative feature films, 21 documentary features, 82 short narratives, 16 short docs, 96 works-in-progress and 118 scripts. Submissions from New York account for about 43% of the projects; 26% come from California and 31% from all other states combined. Half of the filmmakers are first-timers, 25% are what Tait calls “extremely experienced” and the other 25% fall somewhere between.

The absence of curatorial selection – any IFP member can submit a project for a fee ranging from $250 to $425 – creates an anything-goes atmosphere that proves energizing to some buyers, daunting to others and chaotic to nearly everyone. Buyers, agents and scouts of all sorts bounce from screen to screen at the Angelika Film Center sixplex, usually staying no more than 15 or 20 minutes to get a quick impression of any given film. While immediate acquisitions are not unheard of, the more common experience is that of contacts made and relationships established.

While that’s been the mission of the market since its inception as an indie sidebar to the New York Film Festival in 1979, the IFFM has adapted itself to the seismic shifts in the independent industry during recent years. While economic conditions in Europe and shifts in the European TV market have caused a drop-off in the foreign acquisitions that once dominated the IFFM, the surge of domestic interest in indie films has boosted the profile and importance of indie distributors on the prowl.

But that shift can be a mixed blessing for filmmakers. Low-budget exceptions like “Clerks” aside, the big indie distribs such as Miramax, New Line and Samuel Goldwyn are less interested in the shoestring-financed pics that once dominated the arthouse circuit, leaving many IFFM hopefuls in the lurch.

On a brighter note, distributors of all sizes are showing more interest in getting involved with projects at an ever-earlier stage of development. The IFFM has responded by shifting its focus as an acquisitions market to a development market, billing itself as the only film event with an official works-in-progress section. Prior to the market, organizers send buyers a detailed development guide listing works-in-progress and scripts. More than 900 “networking meetings” between filmmakers and buyers are arranged by the IFP.

New “Borders”

And this year the IFP is launching a three-day sub-market called “No Borders,” a joint project with the Sundance Institute, Rotterdam’s Cine-Mart and Germany’s Nordrhein Westfalen Film Foundation, designed to promote international film financing of American indie product. The four sponsor groups chose 33 projects in various stages of development, with criteria based on a filmmaker’s established track record either in theatrical distribution or on the fest circuit, and the project’s appeal on an international level. At least 20% of financing must be in place for inclusion in No Borders.

While some might argue that such an elite sub-market sets up a hierarchy among filmmakers, Tait counters that the interest generated by the more established writers and directors will draw more scouts to the market – boosting the odds of a close encounter even for the novice helmers.

The No Borders project also strengthens the tie between the market and No Borders co-sponsor Sundance. Unlike Sundance’s rivalries with other festivals – last year’s attention-getting run-in with the Hamptons Film Festival being the most recent example – the Utah fest and the New York market have co-existed peacefully. Even with Sundance’s increasing reliance on bigger-budgeted studio fare, the 1993 edition included six IFFM pics, and the number jumped to 18 the following year. The ’95 Sundance fest included seven market alumni, including the “The Brothers McMullen.”

And other outlets are boosting their market profile as well. The Bravo television channel, a longtime supporter of the market, increased its presence even more with its launch last year of the Independent Film Channel. Although dozens of IFFM films have hit the two channels following theatrical release, the year-old Independent Film Channel has announced plans to produce between six and eight short films – and two or three feature documentaries – per year. One IFC production already in the can: “Boy Crazy, Girl Crazier,” a short film by Illeana Douglas. Jonathan Sehring, senior VP at Bravo/IFC, signed Douglas to a deal during last year’s IFFM.

Films already garnering some buzz this year include Xiao-Yen Wang’s “The Monkey Kid,” which screened in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes; Todd Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse”; and Steve Yeager’s “Divine Trash,” a docu about filmmaker John Waters. And Guy Magar’s “Lookin’ Italian” features actor Matt LeBlanc, currently riding high on television’s “Friends.”

Those films and the surprises that leap from the market might follow such recent IFFM grads as Michael Corrente’s “Federal Hill” or Wally White’s “Lie Down With Dogs” along the arthouse/festival circuits. Or maybe not. If the IFFM is, in some ways, the indie industry’s graduate-level crash course in business, diplomas shouldn’t be confused with overnight theatrical success. Even a good year will see only two or three IFFM films go to the big indie distribs, and another 20 or so getting distribution from the smaller outfits.

And nearly all of those deals will be made well after the market closes, when Rolodex cards have been thumbed thin.

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