Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Learn how to Doc It Out at Independent Film Week - by Agnes Varnum

Though two years old, blogger, programmer, Fair Use advocate, and general indie film woman about town Agnes Varnum wrote THE definitive guide to attending what was then called the IFP Market (and now called Independent Film Week) for documentary filmmakers. Counting down 38 days to this year’s incarnation, I have posted the somewhat outdated but still very relevant guide and in the next 5 weeks, will have weekly advice and updates from filmmakers of IFW’s past.
Note: this post was published in IndieWire in August of 2007.

Doc Filmmakers Guide to the IFP Market
By Agnes Varnum

Approaching its 29th incarnation, running from September 16 -19, the Independent Feature Project’s Market has become an important stop for documentary films. Unlike a festival, the Market is intended to give buyers and festival programmers a peek at new work. Through closed screenings, networking meetings like “speed dating” as well as buyer-requested one-on-ones, and a host of typical parties and social opportunities, to the uninitiated, the Market can be, as IFP executive director Michelle Byrd called it, “mystifying.”

This year, the Spotlight on Documentaries section of the Market (there are also programs for narrative work—No Borders and Emerging Narrative), will host 65 work-in-progress, 20 completed features and 6 completed short projects. Director of programming Milton Tabbot notes, “An interesting theme this year are science-related projects, and projects by new filmmakers from other disciplines, particularly performing arts. We saw less of the kids-in-competition projects than we have in the past few years.” The 91 selected projects represent about 20% of the total submissions, so the programming is highly selective. “Filmmakers should consider whether their work is ready for industry exposure. Few projects in the Market are in the first stages of development, though presentation is important. A great pitch will get in, even if it’s early.”

An important aspect of what the Market offers its selected projects is screenings at the Angelika Theater. Only open to the industry representatives accredited by the Market, they offer a chance for filmmakers to see their work on the big screen, often for the first time. Christopher Wong, who attended the 2006 Market with “Whatever It Takes,” said, “The screening allowed me to judge the reaction of a totally unbiased audience to my film. I got the chance to see what was funny, what made people cry, and also what didn't work.”

After scheduling a single screening for each project, remaining open slots are sold. Wong and others advise purchasing an additional screening if possible. However, a Market alumnus who preferred to remain anonymous notes, “Everything had a price tag on it and a hefty one at that. If you want an extra screening, pay this. If you want a full page ad in the catalog, pay that…Before it was all said and done we paid close to $1000 and this didn't include the cost of lab fees and press materials.” But, for many, the opportunity to network with the industry heavy-hitters in attendance outweighs the sometimes hefty price tag of attending.

Jeremy Stulberg, who attended the 2005 Market with “Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa,” then in the early stages of development, said, “We met our Consulting Producer Emily Gardiner Herzog there [and] we also had a meeting with Diana Holtzberg and Jan Rofekamp of Films Transit International, who ultimately ended up repping the film.” Most of the filmmakers surveyed for this article advised managing expectations—that you probably won’t walk away with a distributor or a pocketful of cash but as Hugo Perez (2006 Market with “In the Footsteps of Orpheus” and 2007 with “Summer Sun, Winter Moon”) put it, “Think of your meetings (official and otherwise) as the beginning of a conversation that will continue to play out after the market is over.”

This year will see 31 filmmakers who have attended the Market in the past. Shannon O'Rourke (2006 and 2007 with “Maybe Baby”) and Tracy Heather Strain (2006 with “Lorraine Hansberry Project”) have seen 10 Markets between them. Both offered that connecting to other filmmakers can be as fruitful as making industry connections. O’Rourke said, “It's a really fun venue for meeting other filmmakers, seeing and supporting each other's projects, and connecting as artists in a country with drastically diminishing sources of funding for independent filmmakers.” Strain adds, “We help promote each other's projects.”

If you are keeping track, advice so far is mange your expectations of what will happen during the 4-day gathering, don’t go overboard on spending and be open to networking with other filmmakers. Michael Chandler, (2006 Market with “Knee Deep” and 2007 with “Greedy Trial Lawyers: Will We Miss Them When They're Gone?”) advises “It is intense: be prepared for hectic.” Chandler pointed out that the industry reps by and large hadn’t seen material from his film at the time of their meetings. Byrd told indieWIRE that in response to feedback from last year, DVDs with 3-minute clips from all documentary projects have been sent to buyers in advance. So, in addition to a dossier with written synopsis submitted by filmmakers, buyers also now have the opportunity to watch clips in advance. Advice about showing clips? Chandler said, “I saw one woman showing Hans Robert Eisenhauer [Arte/ZDF] a video on her laptop--a good idea for next time.”

Who can you expect to meet at the Market? A big portion of the program for works-in-progress are buyer-requested meetings. After perusing the dossier, industry reps from long-time Market supporters like HBO, PBS and ITVS, A&E Indie Films and the Sundance Channel, and new this year, Participant Productions and BMP Films, tell Market staff with which filmmakers they want to have a half-hour meeting. The Market schedules those meetings and provides filmmakers with a schedule. Not in works-in-progress? Attend the speed dating events and networking breakfast and luncheon hosted by sponsoring companies.

Some projects have lots of meetings while others may have only a few. Strain said, “I try not to compare when other projects and filmmakers receive more favorable time slots, bigger screening audiences, longer meeting lists, or more personal messages…instead, I ask myself things like: ‘Did I present my project in the most compelling way in print and in my pitches?,’ ‘Was my application sample strong?,’ ‘How much time did I spend inviting people to my screening before I left home as well as at the Market?’ and ‘Are my marketing materials effective?’”

In addition to screenings and one-on-one meetings, there is a tape library. Some buyers will camp out in front of the small screen to see as much as possible. In addition to providing filmmakers with a list of the people who attended your screening, filmmakers also receive a list of who watched your film in the tape library. Says Tabbot, “The usual thank-yous to people you meet with is an important follow-up step, but also, stay in touch with IFP. We want to serve as advocates for Market alumni, whether it is putting in a good word with a festival or announcing updates in our newsletter.”

Awards and prizes at the Market vary each year. This year, The Fledgling Foundation is sponsoring awards for a socially conscious project and an Emerging Latino Filmmaker award. Nominees will be announced at a later date. In 2004, “La Sierra” won a Best Feature Documentary award and went on to have a very successful run. Andrew Blackwell (2004 with “La Sierra”) said, “Without [the Market], showing up at our first big festival would have been more of a shock, and we would have been less prepared.”

The piece of advice repeated over and over from each of the filmmakers who contributed to this article, is best said by Sarah Jo Marks (2006 with JUMP! and 2007 with “Girls on the Wall”), “Think about not just this project, but future projects and use this opportunity to meet people that can help further your career. And have fun! You're in New York, eat a good meal, enjoy the city.” Tabbot concluded with, “If you have questions, call me. We are here to help ease anxiety and to give the best advice we can.”

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