Execs reap fruits of new initiatives

The Independent Filmmaker Project has survived many challenges over its sometimes tumultuous 33-year history, some of the biggest two years ago, as longtime executive director Michelle Byrd departed and the economic downturn rocked globe, taking the indie film industry along for the ride.

Longtime producer Joana Vicente, an IFP board and executive committee member who became interim exec director in November 2009, remembers the comments of those who offered advice when she took the job. “Everyone would tell me the same thing: ‘The organization needs a kick in the ass,’?” Vicente laughs. “There was a perception (IFP) was a bit stagnant and old fashioned, and it was not necessarily true, but that was how people perceived it.”

In response, Vicente is instituting changes that expand IFP’s reach, and adding programs that help its filmmakers.

“I guess it’s about, ‘Let’s make sure that we’re not up here and the membership is (down) there,’ ” she explains. “Let’s make sure there’s more connection — that we know what our members want and we’re working for them.”

The new initiatives have come fast and furious. Among them: a partnership with the Film Society of Lincoln Center (FSLC) for IFP’s Independent Film Week (including the first Emerging Visions mentor program); several new events this month in Cannes (including a “Spotlight on Women” evening, a New York Times-sponsored TimesTalks panel and a weeklong series of breakfast gatherings); the international TransAtlantic Partners IFP training program; the first Cross-Media Forum NYC (a new media conference with London-based digital group Power to the Pixel); new fellowships with the Latin American Training Council and others sending U.S. filmmakers around the globe; and the expansion of IFP’s core Independent Filmmaker Labs.

“We’re the only labs that deal with films in post-production,” Vicente says, “and they were too focused on strategies for festivals, so we integrated new components of marketing and distribution.”

Beginning this fall, Independent Film Week, the oldest U.S. event for films in development seeking producers and funding, as well as the setting for IFP’s Independent Filmmaker Conference, will be housed in FSLC’s brand new Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center.

Emerging Visions, held Oct. 3, will offer 25 upcoming filmmakers from the New York Film Festival and the IFP workshops mentorship from industry and fest vets.

The film society’s exec director, Rose Kuo, says the program will expand to include helmers from FSLC’s New Directors/New Films series, and more partnerships it hopes to operate year round.

The alliance is a reunion of sorts: the IFP was born from a conference organized by Sandra Schulberg, Miles Mogulescu (from the now-defunct foundation the Film Fund) and Steve Wax to run in conjunction with the 1979 New York Film Festival.

Producer Nekisa Cooper speaks highly of Film Week’s Emerging Narrative program, newly reinstated after being cut due to financial constraints.

“It was grueling, but really helped us get our chops in terms of the whole speed-dating aspect of pitching a film,” she says. “(Deputy director) Amy Dotson became a mentor to us. (IFP has) the only lab in the world I know of that deals with what you do after you’ve shot the film: How do I get this film to an audience?”

The Labs continue to be the heart of the org and support many of the roughly 300 features IFP helps develop each year. The IFP’s level of achievement can be measured by its many acclaimed works, including “Blue Valentine” and “Frozen River.”

The biggest, latest, success story may be writer-director Dee Rees and Cooper’s lesbian coming-of-age tale “Pariah,” which Focus Features nabbed shortly after its Sundance Film Festival debut this year.

Vicente may benefit from being soft spoken in a group with many loud, opinionated voices among its 10,000 mainly New York-based members. And though she doesn’t appear it at first, the exec director is very much a political animal; she was born in Portugal, where she worked on several left-wing political campaigns and met her husband, producing partner Jason Kliot. After stints working at the European Parliament and other jobs, Vicente headed to Kliot’s native New York two decades ago, where the pair went on to produce or exec produce more than 40 indie features.

Vicente was elected to the IFP’s board in 2005 and became secretary of its executive committee three years later.

“I was part of the search committee looking for (an exec director), and it never even crossed my mind that I would be doing this job,” she says. “At the 11th hour, a candidate ended up not working out, and we said to each other, ‘Someone needs to step in.’?”

She committed to a year and then was quietly offered the permanent position. The timing was right: Kliot and Vicente left their HDNet Films after it was absorbed into parent company 2929 Entertainment in late 2007, and production at their Open City Films banner slowed down during the financial crunch.

Vicente’s first order of business was to enlist corporate sponsors such as Royal Bank of Canada (backer of the new partnership with the Lincoln Center film org and Byrd’s United Nations/IFP “Envision” doc program) to replace longtime benefactors sidelined by the economy. Other programs were shored up, including Filmmaker Magazine, the annual Script to Screen Conference and monthly Industry Connect workshops.

It remains to be seen whether Vicente can avoid the kind of controversies that have dogged IFP in the past decade, including a failed attempt to bring five regional, autonomously run IFP groups together under the IFP/National initiative, the defection of the IFP/LA branch (now Film Independent) with its Spirit Awards, and complaints over new rules at the Gotham Awards.

Vicente says there may be an award added to the Gothams that integrates another branch of the IFP, but adds, “If we have something that’s successful, (we should) kind of leave it alone.”

She wants to end the cold war that developed with Film Independent. These efforts were interrupted when Film Independent exec director Dawn Hudson left that org a few weeks ago to head the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

“One of the first things I did when I took the job was meet with Dawn,” Vicente says. “I just met with her again and we talked about some concrete areas where we could collaborate. I’d love to repair (things) and figure out if there are bridges between our organizations.”

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