Change brings new energy to IFP

Indie org rides twists and turns of evolution

With all the doom and gloom dogging the indie market this year, one wonders how Gotham’s Independent Feature Project stays relevant. Now in its 30th year, the answer is by staying on message.

Created in 1979, the org still embraces storybook tales of the indie filmmaker overcoming the odds. In the pre-Internet ’80s and early ’90s, the IFP (and grassroots org the Assn. of Independent Video and Film) were the go-to places in Gotham for newbie filmmakers.

As independent films found a cultural foothold, the byproduct of the filmmakers’ efforts could be gauged each September in SoHo.

The org’s flagship event, formerly called the IFP Market, swelled with more submissions every year, turning the lobby of New York’s Angelica Theater into a circus — with desperate filmmakers hawking their wares like carnival barkers.

“The early wave of the market had a lot of people simply high on the delight of getting something done,” producer Ted Hope says. “The market worked as the first filter. There weren’t anywhere near the numbers of film festivals there are today.”

With that fest explosion, the mar-ket began to feel redundant. While career-igniters such as Michael Moore’s “Roger and Me” and Richard Linklater’s “Slacker” rose above the mass to find homes, indie execs poring through the market’s thick catalog in the subsequent years found little to get excited about. The quantity was diluting the quality.

Change also started to erupt outside the event. The shuttering of the Assn. of Independent Video and Film and the IFP’s much-publicized split with the former IFP/West (now Film Independent) were seismic events.

Exec director Michelle Byrd seized the moment to focus the org.

“I’m not so afraid of change,” Byrd says. “I see it as an opportunity for new energy.”

Byrd reached out to the industry, asking focus groups the hard questions. Execs from major distribs, production companies and film fests weighed in. “We put it all on the table,” Byrd remembers: “Is the event even relevant anymore?”

The result sparked the eventual elimination of the market narrative screenings, more one-on-one meetings and the addition of the org’s biggest change: vetting projects rather than taking all comers. “We went from being passive to very active and engaged,” Byrd says. “When we started to be precious about the projects, people began to appreciate us more.”

Outside of Indie Film Week, the IFP’s offerings have sharpened. Script readings and HD camera rentals are for filmmakers at the early stages. Rough-cut labs for narratives and docs match developing projects with industry mentors. Films ready for public screenings use the IFP’s festival workshops and partnerships with Cannes, Berlin and Rotterdam.

And the Gotham Awards, now positioned at the start of the awards season, is the must-attend industry event that celebrates the fruits of these labors. This year’s honorees include Penelope Cruz, with others to be named.

While a “can-do” message still motivates the IFP, it has begun to tackle the industry’s next evolution by spearheading digital ventures such as embracing Internet-era social networking, marketing and exhibition. Byrd has plans to aggressively move into these DIY efforts, using the IFP brand as an aggregator into digital exhibition.

“The idea that there’s this well-defined market is morphing into the fact that there’s any number of ways to get a film out there,” says Scott Macaulay, editor of the IFP’s Filmmaker Magazine. “It’s not cut-and-dry any longer.”

“You can look at the evolution of the IFP as the evolution of producing,” Hope continues. “It’s no longer enough to have a good script, package it and finance it. It’s how you bring the audience ahead of the movie. The IFP is now helping people recognize where the audience is, how to prep them, feed them. And it’s teaching filmmakers that it can be very rewarding.”