California split

Film Independent breaks from East Coast IFP and sets new boundaries

WHAT: 21st annual Independent Spirit Awards
WHEN: Saturday
WHERE: A tent on Santa Monica Beach
WHO: Host Sarah Silverman, honorary chair Naomi Watts and FIND’s Dawn Hudson

Justice Potter Stewart’s famous 1964 definition of obscenity — “I know it when I see it” — applies equally well to the nebulous off-Hollywood category of independent film. Or at least it did until the 2006 Independent Spirit Awards, when the newly formed Film Independent (FIND) — which replaces Independent Feature Project Los Angeles — finally set a formal budget ceiling of $20 million to clarify the parameters of independent film for its voting constituency.

It still allows for the inclusion of Focus’ “Brokeback Mountain,” Sony Classics’ “Capote,” Warner Independent’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” and Lionsgate’s “Crash” — four of the five best pic Oscar contenders.

This year’s Spirits, to be hosted by comedian Sarah Silverman on Saturday, is the first since the former IFP/Los Angeles severed its ties with sister organization IFP/New York as well as smaller chapters in Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Seattle.

Since joining the organization in 1991, exec director Dawn Hudson has seen L.A. membership rise from 900 to 6,300 members (New York has roughly 2,000 members), and has presided over the acquisition of the Los Angeles Film Festival and the growth of the Spirit Awards, which now provides 50% of FIND’s year-round budget.

Given IFP/L.A.’s 25th anniversary last year, Hudson says: “We did a lot of soul-searching about what we want to accomplish. And we felt like an independent structure would help us serve our members more effectively. I don’t think it will affect the Spirit Awards in any way. All the IFP (members) still vote on the Spirit Awards, and it will continue as long as they want it to continue.”

In 2000, the group did try to unite along more formal lines by establishing a national IFP board to provide a consolidated face for independent film. It was an experiment that, by all accounts, failed and was over within a year. At a September 2004 meeting in New York, the cracks were beginning to show — as much from struggling with rule-by-committee as any ideological differences.

After IFP/New York’s Gotham Awards moved from September to December, potentially crowding the Spirit Awards’ Oscar window (a contention both organization heads deny), the story broke in March last year that IFP/Los Angeles planned to unilaterally pull away from the other chapters.

Although a confidentiality provision in a settlement agreement prevents discussion of the exact terms, it is clear that the New York organization will retain Filmmaker Magazine (published in New York, now with the IFP logo on the cover) plus its original Web site, and L.A.’s FIND will continue to exclusively oversee the L.A. Film Festival and the Spirit Awards. In addition, New York and L.A. agree not to launch chapters in each other’s geographic home turf.

(Contrary to some public perceptions, all IFP chapters have always been financially independent of one another, and none of the others shared in profits from the festival or Spirit Awards.)

“I think some people would have seen this (breakup) coming,” says IFP/New York’s exec director Michelle Byrd. “I certainly heard from people in Los Angeles who thought this was a totally natural thing to happen. I never did, but it made sense when I sat and thought about it afterward.”

Opinion on L.A.’s rebranding efforts does not break along geographical lines. Gotham-based Sony Pictures Classics co-topper Tom Bernard says he found the separation of the groups all but inevitable.

“I think it’s horrendous that the split had to happen, but I can see why it did,” he says. “The West Coast membership is full of filmmakers and the East Coast is more about beginners and execs.”

Bernard adds that the West Coast “certainly has stepped out on the ledge to speak for members of the filmmaking community that individually would have suffered if they’d had to speak up.” He notes that Hudson was the first to speak out on the awards screener ban a couple of years ago, while the East Coast was less proactively vocal on the issue.

Bernard also has ideas about IFP Market, held in September. “I look at the IFP Market that they have here in New York, year in and year out, and basically not many sales come out of that. It’s not really a market, it’s a showcase for first-time filmmakers.” He would like to see IFP and FIND join forces on a indie market at Sundance. “That would be a tremendous asset.”

Lionsgate’s distrib chief Tom Ortenberg, a West Coaster who calls himself a “more-than-casual observer but less-than-freedom fighter,” says, “The divorce from IFP/New York is still just months old, and we may need to go through a couple of seasons of festivals, awards, workshops and panels before seeing if there’s really any major effect.”

Gotham-based producer Anthony Bregman, who sits on IFP’s board and has been a Spirit Award nominating committee member for the past three years, fails to see the downside.

“I don’t think it’s a scandal that the two branches split up,” he says. “If there are different constituencies, different membership bases and different programs, it makes more sense for there to be two different organizations than to try and combine them. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Ask Sumner Redstone.”