Event showcases indie filmmaking

For first-time filmmakers as well as veterans, the Independent Feature Project Market has long been New York’s most important mart for indies. Now in its 23rd year, the event is the ideal sales springboard for the 600 or so writers, producers and directors who descend on Gotham’s Angelika Film Center and Puck building for a week of screenings, seminars and all-important networking.

This year, Michelle Byrd, IFP executive director, will implement initiatives for the ever-changing market to sharpen and focus the event.

Part of this fine-tuning includes reducing the length by two days (Sunday-Oct. 5). There will be fewer screenings of completed features again this year, to allow for more screenings of works-in-progress, while the market’s online component, which was introduced successfully in 2000, will have trailers and marketing materials available for interested buyers. The market offers over $20,000 in prize money and in-kind services for best feature, script and best African-American project.

A look at some of the gems that premiered at the market since its inception in 1979 reads like a who’s who of independent American filmmaking: “Return of the Secaucus Seven,” “Blood Simple,” “Down by Law,” “Roger & Me,” “Slacker,” “Clerks,” “The Brothers McMullen” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse” bowed there.

While the emphasis has shifted in recent years to docs (“The Big One,” “The Farm: Angola, USA,” “Dancemaker” and “Southern Comfort”) the 50 or so completed features are divided fairly equally between docs and fiction features.

“Where else could people who have made films without a sales company attached have a forum and an audience for their work? This is the place to do it,” says Jon Gerrans co-president of Strand Releasing and market veteran.

Kate Davis, whose doc “Southern Comfort” on transsexuals won the IFP $10,000 post-production award in September 2000 and the Grand Prize for documentary at Sundance in January, was making her third trip to the market with a project last year.

“You sort of have to go with a coat of armor on and brace yourself,” she says of the volume of screenings plus filmmakers and buyers in attendance. “I think the market can be overwhelming for filmmakers and peoples’ hopes can be dashed, so keeping your sights low is important and not assuming you’ll have a meeting with everyone from Fine Line.”

This year, the market is augmenting its panels, seminars and workshop series.

“The seminars are great,” says Davis, “and I’ve tried to go on years when I don’t have a film, just to attend the panels. You get a sense of the personalities and needs of the buyers.”

Panels over the course of the week deal with all aspects of the industry from the development, production, distribution and exhibition process to other aspects including festival strategy, public television, Screen Actors Guild low-budget agreements and films on the Web.

Another major aspect of the event is its co-production market, No Borders. This is the seventh year of an initiative which was established at and run in conjunction with Rotterdam, the Netherlands’ Cinemart. Despite its size (only 35 projects from the U.S. and abroad were selected this year) No Borders is a vital venue for U.S. producers to meet their counterparts from abroad and investigate the co-financing of projects.

One interesting trend this year has been that, regardless of their country of origin, 11 of the 12 non-American projects are English language, compared with prior years when No Borders hosted a far greater diversity of films, particularly Asian and African projects.

“Frankly I think it’s shocking,” says Byrd, “but it’s a product of the globalization of the market.”

“The market is very important to us in terms of making relationships with filmmakers,” says Vicky Waldron, VP of acquisitions with Artistic License. The New York-based distrib has picked up titles at previous markets, such as Matthew Diamond’s “Dancemaker” in 1998 and welcomes the recent shift to more works-in-progress.

This support is echoed by Udy Epstein, president of Seventh Arts Releasing. “Since we’re more focused on documentaries, the availability of works-in-progress is very advantageous to us,” he notes, citing Dov Kelemer’s music doc “Won’t Anybody Listen,” and Gerry Breyer and Chris Patak’s hot dog-focused “Footlong” as works-in-progress the company picked up last year.

Although searching through the market guide and then attending screenings may be “like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” says Gerrans, getting a market screening and making contacts can be a vital initial step for first-time filmmakers.

“Anyone who gets into the market should be thankful,” says helmer Paul Kermizian, whose “Calling Bobcat” was picked up last year by Asylum Entertainment. “You can certainly sell there — it’s a real melting pot of filmmakers.”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more