In 1975, when a small group of energetic filmmakers convened the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers in their living rooms and makeshift offices, the word “independent” didn’t yet conjure up a world of arthouses, busy film festival circuits, and documentary filmmakers with household names. The word merely marked this group of earnest, ambitious directors and producers as separate from a small handful of institutions. It was a declaration that they weren’t part of the Hollywood studio system or the television networks, and that they didn’t want a permanent place in the fledgling world of public television. They hoped their title said something too about their values, about their desire to make work that achieved something more than commercial success. They wanted to make films that mattered socially and artistically and to find audiences who would embrace their work.
AIVF was born at a fertile moment for young filmmakers: at the apex of the optimistic frenzy of late ‘60s and early ‘70s, and at the beginning of an explosion of new venues and technologies for making and showing films. The studio system was no longer a monolithic source of well-regarded American movies; increasingly non- Hollywood filmmakers were earning attention as well, thanks to the excitement generated by the nouvelle vague and a budding generation of auteur directors. At the same time, the growing popularity of television on the one hand, and the horrifying coverage of the
Vietnam War on the other, led more and more people to see the power of images and to want to be part of their creation.
But like many artists, film and video makers worked in isolation and had few communal outlets for their ideas and enthusiasm. “There was nothing back then for experimental filmmakers,” says documentary filmmaker and media activist DeeDee Halleck, who served on the AIVF Board during the ‘70s and ‘80s. “There was no distribution, no support. The medium was so expensive. Ours was the first American organization that tried to provide services.”
In 1974, John Culkin, then head of New York University’s Center for Understanding Media, set out to remedy the situation. He had secured funds that he intended to funnel to independent filmmakers. He recruited Ed Lynch, a cinematographer, to be AIVF’s founding president.
AIVF had a steep road ahead. There wasn’t yet a public appetite for the work these filmmakers hoped to create. “We had to start from the absolute ground to build organizations and structures, and find funding,” says Ariel Dougherty, who had founded Women Make Movies in 1972. “There wasn’t even an audience for our films. People said to us nobody wants to see your weird little movies so don’t even bother.”
In its earliest days, AIVF was a frenzy of meetings. Thrilled to have a venue in which to discuss their craft and concerns, members seemed to want to get together almost nightly. They organized screenings and set up committees to discuss cable, self-distribution, and membership. But it was in its fight against the American Film Institute (AFI) that the nascent organization solidified.
In 1975, for the first time, Congress had proposed to fund media makers through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The AFI lobbied to control those funds exclusively, a move that galvanized Lynch and his compatriots. The AFI was notoriously conservative and dominated by oldguard Hollywood types; AIVF argued that the money should be managed through the NEA’s normal peer panel process. They were ultimately victorious in 1976.
“It was a shock at the time,” says Lawrence Sapadin, executive director of the association from 1980 to 1991. “Nobody had heard of us. It was a real David and Goliath moment.”
The late ‘70s saw more key advocacy victories. AIVF positioned itself against unlikely foes, like public broadcasting, and argued that no one organization should control all the federal or state dollars earmarked for media makers. “It was a very strange position to be in, because PBS was naturally the darling of everybody’s parents,” says documentary filmmaker Ralph Arlyck, an early board member. “But to us they just looked like part of the same power structure.”
AIVF drew attention from these prominent successes, and its members gained confidence. “I remember being amazed that there was some truth to the notion of democracy,” says Arlyck. “We were not a power center. We just had an argument to make. It was very surprising to me that you could actually go down to Washington and make yourself heard.”
After just a few short years, AIVF had outgrown its makeshift status. It rented an office and capitalized on an explosion in membership. It began to offer services to its burgeoning constituency. “My focus was really the membership,” says Sapadin. “We were a trade association. My sense of my job was to make the lives of working filmmakers better. If you weren’t interested in advocacy but you needed health insurance, we could do that. If you had trouble keeping up with the changes in public funding, we would have seminars. If you were renting equipment, we could get you a discount. There was a festival program, and we helped you get your film to an audience.”
A magazine was a crucial element in AIVF’s expansion. After years as a mimeographed newsletter, The Independent Film & Video Monthly was launched as a full-fledged publication in the early ‘80s. “The magazine had practical articles on legal matters, on censorship skirmishes, contract disputes, emerging filmmakers. It had festival listings that everyone relied on—because none other existed then. Theory and practice sat side-by-side, uniquely, and comfortably,” says Pat Thomson, who was editor-in-chief of The Independent throughout the 1990s. “What distinguished The Independent—and AIVF—was its comprehensive focus. It didn’t privilege feature filmmaking, but covered the full panoply: Experimental film, video art, personal documentary, investigative documentary, and shorts were also part of the mix.”
The magazine quickly became more than a vehicle for exchanging information. It tied a disparate community of hard-working, often underpaid filmmakers together and drew people who were making media outside New York and LA into the fold. “The magazine was a real achievement, and it gave many people who were not on the coast or presently producing a sense of the vitality and importance of independent filmmaking,” says Pat Aufderheide, a professor of communications at American University and the executive director of the Center for Social Media. “It gave filmmakers a real sense that they were not just working in another business, but an enterprise that was vital to the public health of the democracy.”
In the mid 1980s, during an era of rapid growth and a burgeoning new slate of services, AIVF took on its most important advocacy initiative. Along with a wide group of collaborators and contact, Sapadin waged AIVF’s slow but determined battle to secure federal funding for what was to become the Independent Television Service (ITVS). The AIVF’s constituency of independent producers had long felt that federal funds for media makers were directed to a small group of insiders. They wanted a separate fund
that would be specifically earmarked for filmmakers and governed by representatives of the independent community. For three years, Sapadin and his coalition tirelessly lobbied Congress. “We started to get some traction, which was remarkable because we were in the thick of the Reagan cutbacks,” remembers Sapadin. “We were able to position ourselves not as liberal producers who needed money, but as an alternative to a public TV landscape that was increasingly seen as elitist. We represented something
more diverse and locally driven.”
When ITVS launched in 1988, it was seen as a tremendous success. “AIVF had positioned independent filmmakers as major voices on public television,” says Aufderheide, who today serves as a vice chair of the ITVS board. “To this day, independent producers serve as canaries in the coalmine of American democracy, reminding us all of underreported issues like nuclear waste, poverty, and the rights of many of America’s disenfranchised groups, including ethnic minorities and the disabled.”
The ITVS campaign left the AIVF staff drained but optimistic. Surely, if independents could find new monies despite Reagan’s retraction of public funding, they could survive until the pendulum swung back and Congress saw the virtue of fully funding the arts. “All through the period, I had this feeling of stewardship, of guarding these successes for a better time,” says Sapadin. “We believed that we were going to come out of this tunnel and there was going to be a reawakening of interest in the public sector and in the arts. We thought the whole spirit of deregulation would pass.”
To the dismay of everyone on AIVF’s board, arts funding continued to shrink. The Clinton era didn’t register as expansionist, but rather ushered in Newt Gingrich and a Republican-dominated Congress, which did its best to abolish the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and ITVS, and succeeded in making deep cuts. “At that time, AIVF had a strong advocacy committee,” says Thompson. “We were constantly on the phone, calling fellow AIVF members in key congressional districts before appropriations votes in Congress and prodding them to call their reps.”
“We knew we had to defend our gains or else we would lose ground,” says Martha Wallner, who worked as AIVF’s advocacy coordinator from 1990 to 1994.
While AIVF continued to argue for expanded arts funding and protections for independent media makers, the landscape for independent filmmakers was undergoing seismic changes. “Independent” was beginning to mean something different than small scale and non-commercial. Increasingly, filmmakers were working outside the sphere of public funding altogether. “For its first 25 years, AIVF operated in a world where independent filmmakers had only nonprofit organizations and smaller media arts centers to help them,” says Thompson. “There was no HBO, no IFC. The country’s vast network of film schools didn’t yet exist. Low-cost video and the DIY approach were yet to be born. There were few or no mini-majors or studio arms for lower-budget arthouse films.”
But by the late 1980s, Indiewood was already on its way. Spike Lee’s films were a harbinger of the tremendous success of non-studio movies, a genre that had attracted the interest of producers like the Weinstein brothers who went on to build the Miramax empire. Independent filmmakers became glamorous and synonymous with interesting and ambitious—but nonetheless mainstream work.
It was a paradigm shift that many old-guard AIVF members resisted. “There is a certain
kind of filmmaker that is independent because nobody has bought them out yet. They’re just waiting to sell their film to Warner Brothers. Then there are people who make independent films because they believe in changing the world and they believe their stories are important. And AIVF was really trying to serve that second group of people,” says Bart Weiss, the director of the Dallas Video Festival and an associate professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, who joined the AIVF Board in 1984 and has since served on and off as its president.
Some AIVF staffers and members hoped the organization might learn to adapt to the changes and might prosper along with groups like the Independent Features Project, whose Independent Spirit Awards now rivals even the Oscars with the star power and media attention it attracts. “We were the oldest nonprofit that served independent media makers, but I was interested in giving the contemporary independent community what they wanted, which was more money and attention for their work,” says Rebecca Carroll, who edited The Independent between 2003 and 2005. “AIVF had a deeply rooted, grassroots ethic which was wonderful. I hoped it might adopt a more with-it vibe.”
At the same time, the roles that AIVF had traditionally played for independent filmmakers were shrinking. Many of its customary functions were rendered increasingly obsolete. For example, new digital technology undermined seminars and equipment discounts.
“We have to put forth a model that’s an alternative to the consolidation and the commercialization of public space, just as we did with public television and public access to cable,” says Wallner. “People cannot take for granted that they’re going to be able to distribute media online in an affordable way unless people make sure that space is protected.”
“There are some things the commercial space does well, like making toothpaste and making funny comedies, but there are other things that need public protection, like national parks and certain kinds of independent media,” Sapadin agreed. “That’s what AIVF could help us do.”