Indies link as S.F. confab

65 producers learn, pitch, and shmooze biz execs

SAN FRANCISCO — They came for a cashier’s check, and at the least they received a reality check.

Sixty-five independent producers arrived at the seventh annual Intl. Film Financing Conference (IFFCON) on Friday, hoping to entice funders during an intensive weekend of one-on-one meetings, roundtables, panel discussions and cocktail parties. If nothing else, the filmmakers got as much sobering talk as they could handle.

“The success of independent film has, ironically, been its undoing,” cautioned keynote speaker Jack Lechner, former Miramax executive veepee of production and development. “Niche distributors now produce more films than they acquire. Some very nice, well-made films that would have had a life five years ago, now won’t.”

Sensing trends

The 50 industry execs, including reps from USA Films, Fox Searchlight, Britain’s Channel 4, Films Transit and Berlin-based producers Zero Film shared their perspectives on international co-financing and distribution while keeping a sharp eye for exceptional projects and visionary directors.

“You get a sense of trends, you get a sense of young people and sometimes you can find projects to pursue,” said Charlotte Mickie, Toronto-based senior VP of acquisitions and development for Alliance Atlantis Communications’ motion picture group and a member of IFFCON’s selection advisory committee.

Among the films that were either set in motion at IFFCON or found key financing as a result of contacts made in San Francisco were Thom Fitzgerald’s “Beefcake” and Kris Isaacson’s “Down to You,” which Miramax is opening wide this weekend.

Narrative projects drawing heat at this year’s confab included “Groove,” producer Danielle Renfrew’s romantic drama set in S.F.’s underground rave scene and premiereing in Sundance’s American Spectrum section, and “Mustang Sally,” Chris Iovenko’s debut feature, adapted from Edward Allen’s darkly comic novel.

On the documentary side, veteran filmmakers generated strong interest. Andrew Horn’s bio of New Wave pop icon Klaus Nomi, “The Nomi Story,” and Lourdes Portillo’s exploration of an unsolved wave of serial murders in Juarez, “Senorita Extraviada Missing Young Women,” popped out of the pack.

IFFCON co-founder and exec director Wendy Braitman detected two trends among the 300 projects that applied for the 60 coveted spots. Not surprisingly, Braitman received a ton of “Blair Witch”-inspired projects. Less predictably, the second-most popular genre was stories of people taking a trip to bury a parent.

While IFFCON has attracted a strong lineup of industry pros since its founding, Braitman said the number of quality filmmakers has increased each year. “The projects are better, and the talent pool was better this year,” she declared.

Pitch sesh

While the two-day confab, held at KQED’s studios, was limited to 65 chosen producers (who paid $475), Friday’s session at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts was open to anyone willing to ante up $150.

A case study of Jennifer Fox’s epic PBS doc led the open day’s morning events. A post-box lunch highlight was “Pitch Perfect: How to Sell Your Idea,” which gave unknown filmmakers a shot at hooking panelists such as Marcus Hu of Strand Releasing and Caroline Kaplan of the Independent Film Channel.

Given S.F.’s emergence in the forefront of the Internet juggernaut, a panel dubbed “Funding the Future: the Digital Wave” was inevitable. Jason Kliot of Open City Films and its new digital division, Blow Up Pictures, echoed Kechner’s keynote remarks with the bracing news that indie filmmakers now have two choices: adopt digital technology or make bigger-budget, more commercial films.

“Independent film that is serious is no longer viable,” Kliot declared.

The weekend intensive session included a case study of Jermey Podeswa’s “The Five Senses” (Fine Line) and a panel on “Financing With International Television” featuring reps from HBO, La Sept ARTE, P.O.V., Channel 4, Independent Film Channel and Encore Media Group.

For visitors who could pull themselves away from San Francisco’s crowded restaurants and fashionable stores, IFFCON also included a Directors Film Series spotlighting a quartet of Asian films, led by Murali Nair’s Camera d’Or winner, “Throne of Death.” IFFCON wrapped Sunday night with a screening of “The Five Senses” and one last networking party at the S.F. Museum of Modern Art.

‘Relationship business’

The receptions and one-on-one sessions proved the biggest boon to the producers. “Filmmaking is a relationship business, and it’s hard to make relationships on the Internet,” noted Trevor Haysom of New Zealand, one of the seven producers invited to IFFCON from outside of North America.

Haysom, who’s developing a black comedy titled “Golden Delicious” with Alison McLean informally attached to direct, brought “In My Father’s Den,” a psychological mystery that would mark writer-director Brad McGann’s feature debut.

A hallmark of IFFCON has always been its emphasis on practical info rather than fell-good cheerleading. Hence the choice of Lechner as keynote speaker, whose book, “Boob: One Man, Seven Days, 12 Televisions,” will be released in October by Crown Publishers.

“It was vital to tell this community that unless they do something extraordinary and unique, that can stand out amidst the clutter, their films will never see the light of theaters,” Lechner told Daily Variety.