The Minnesota Independent Film Fund

What is the Minnesota Independent Film Fund?
The Minnesota Independent Film Fund (MIFF) is an innovative program created by the Minnesota Film Board, and administered by Independent Feature Project/North with funds provided by Northwest Airlines (who have a long-time interest in supporting independent filmmaking, in particular in their home market) and the McKnight Foundation to establish a feature film development fund in Minnesota. Specifically, MIFF is an investment in the creative talent of Minnesota filmmakers and provides a unique opportunity to stimulate production of high quality independent feature films.

How, when and why did the Fund come into being?
In 1995 Mike Sweeny, Minnesota CEO of Blockbuster (Minnesota’s franchise, not the national company), approached Randy Adamsick, executive director of the Minnesota Film Board, with the idea of creating a program to develop narrative filmmaking in Minnesota. The fund was formerly known as the Blockbuster Fund, but in 1998 was changed to the Minnesota Independent Film Fund. Blockbuster has not been linked in any other way to any of the winning projects, and they have no current role in MIFF.

What the Fund’s relationship to IFP/North and the Minnesota Film Board?
IFP/North administers the preliminary process of MIFF, which involves the application process, the panel selection and review process, and the project evaluations received by applicants and award recipients. Minnesota Film Board special projects manager Georgianna Day handles the second portion, which includes coordinating the national Steering Committee, acting as liaison between recipients and the Steering Committee and other industry professionals, administering the screenwriting mentorship program currently attached to the fund, and providing resources from the Minnesota film office.
All activity concerning the fund is presented to the Advisory Committee, which meets quarterly at the offices of the Minnesota Film Board. This committee is represented by board and staff members from both organizations, representatives from the McKnight Foundation, Northwest Airlines, and members of the Minnesota filmmaking community.

What is IFP/North?
Independent Feature Project/North is a nonprofit arts organization whose mission is to encourage the quality and diversity of independent media production. We accomplish this mission by fostering the personal vision of a diverse group of filmmakers, providing access to funding that allows for creative control by filmmakers, and cultivating exposure to a wide range of audiences. IFP/North is one of five chapters of the Independent Feature Project (also in New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Chicago), independently incorporated with a regional focus.

What kind of community does Minneapolis/St. Paul have? What are some recent projects that have come from the area?
The Twin Cities film community is very unique in terms of developing filmmakers who have very limited or non-existent funds, but a wealth of contacts and hook-ups in crew and post facilities. A perfect example would be the increasing number of short films that are made locally. In 1999 approximately 30 short films were completed. Short filmmakers make up a good portion of the film community, but the range of projects is spread across the board with commercial work, television, and feature length projects like 1995 MIFF recipient Wendell Jon Andersson’s With or Without You or filmmaker Eric Tretbar’s Snow, both of which played the international festival circuit.

Who makes up the staff of IFP/North and MIFF?
IFP/North has a staff of five fabulous folks: executive director Jane Minton; business director Rita Pucci; film funds director Patrice Snead (that’s me); public relations/events director Kelly Nathe; and membership director Chris Dotson. The MIFF team consists of myself, Georgianna Day (special projects director, Minnesota Film Board), Jane Minton (IFP/North), and Randy Adamsick (executive director, Minnesota Film Board).

The driving philosophy behind the fund is . . .
Make movies!

What percentage of the MIFF’s budget goes towards film or video projects?
Each year the Minnesota Independent Film Fund distributes awards totaling $75,000 worth of development money and mentorship support to Minnesota makers of dramatic feature films.

What types of projects do you seek?
MIFF is intended for mid-career artists with some production experience; established filmmakers, if their artistic development will be significantly advanced by MIFF; and artists who demonstrate significant promise as filmmakers.

How many media awards are given out per year? What is the total dollar amount awarded annually?
The $75,000 development fund annually awards three $25,000 loans.

What is the ratio of applicants to recipients?
Approximately 12 applicants per recipient, although this average can fluctuate from year to year. Last year there were 37 applicants.

What are the restrictions on applicants’ qualifications (e.g., ethnicity, geography, medium)? Do you accept projects of all lengths and genres?
All applicants must be current Minnesota residents or former Minnesota residents having lived in the state for a period of seven consecutive years. MIFF awards feature-length fiction projects, with artistic vision and ability to complete production as the primary distinguishing criteria.

Do you fund projects at various stages of production?
The fund’s mission is to support projects at all stages of development. Applicants are required to submit a feature-length script or treatment, and are strongly encouraged to provide video samples of their work.

Name some of the best-known titles and/or artists you have funded. What have been some of the distribution/ exhibition paths of those projects?
There are two MIFF projects that have been completely finished, and both without distributors. The 1995 recipient, screenwriter Wendell Jon Andersson, received one of the first MIFF awards for his film With or Without You, produced by Karla Eckdahl. Francis Wilkinson together with Mount Curve Productions, received the MIFF award in 1998 for their film Hollow Mack, which has filmmaker Charles Burnett attached. In 1996, filmmaker Garret Williams completed his feature film Spark with the MIFF development money. Spark was screened at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, and also received an award and high recognition at New York’s Urbanworld Film Festival last year. Wendell is currently doing some writing for MTV Productions in Los Angeles, and Garret’s short film BB Gun was recently aired on Showtime. The opportunities for both Garret and Wendell have extended beyond Minnesota, but receiving the MIFF award was a huge stepping stone in their careers.

Explain your funding cycle and deadlines.
The MIFF guidelines are distributed in early April; this year’s deadline is July 7th. During the three-month promotion of MIFF, several informational workshops are held throughout Minnesota with an out-of-state workshop alternating each year between New York and Los Angeles. This year I will be conducting an informational workshop in New York at the offices of AIVF. (See page 69 for details.)

Can the same individual apply two years in a row? Are there time frame restrictions within which the funds must be used?
Folks who are not fund recipients can reapply as often as they wish. However, former fund winners with successfully produced projects must have paid back the fund to re-apply. Former fund award winners who have not successfully produced the awarded project may re-apply after three years with a different project. As a condition of the award, recipients enter into a contract with the Minnesota Independent Film Fund where they are personally responsible for all development funds awarded. All funds must be repaid on the first day of principal photography or upon the sale, transfer, reversion of rights, assignment or other disposition of property.

Who makes the award decisions? Can you name some past national panelists?
All projects are presented to a local panel of industry professionals for an intensive evaluation process, which narrows the entire applicant pool to ten finalists. The 10 finalists are publicly announced at the end of August, and are then reviewed by a national panel of three industry professionals. Some of our national panelists include: Joy Newhouse (Sloss Law Firm), producer Jim Stark, Marcus Hu (Strand Releasing), Lynn Holst (Halmark Entertainment), and director/producer Tom Kalin.

Tell us a little about the review process.
Each panelist receives a set of judging criteria and all of the applicant’s submitted materials to carefully evaluate each project. The local panel meets after weeks of evaluation to rank the 10 projects that will go to the second round of judging. The national panel also receives judging criteria and project materials, but during an intensive two-day gathering in Minnesota they also interview each applicant and their team (i.e. producer, writer, and director). Three MIFF recipients are chosen after all the interviews have been completed.

IFP/North provides invaluable information resources for independent filmmakers in the midwest, including fiscal sponsorship. Do you give additional support to artists once they’ve received the award?
You betcha (we really don’t talk like that either, for the record). The media coverage of this film fund is major! In addition to the local press we send information to national outlets as well. Mentorship and support with high profile executives in New York and Los Angeles is given to each recipient as well. The prestige of this program is equivalent to Minnesota royalty in the film community.

What advice do you have for filmmakers in putting forth a strong application?
There are no stupid questions. Don’t wait until the last minute to prepare for the application process, because it is high maintenance in terms of budgets, development schedules, and project description. Most importantly: do your homework. Take a moment to review the applications of former applicants for pointers. Get to know your administrator and do not assume anything.

What is the most common mistake applicants make?
I really have a hard time with the word mistake, because I believe everything is on a learning curve. So I will say that many applicants learn that they should have a very polished script or treatment when they submit their project, because the script is the foundation of it all. I can’t say enough about good writing. Most importantly have your production team in place, (writer, producer, and director of the project). Out of those three positions only one will take the creative lead in applying to the fund. I will throw in another lesson that some of the finalists have learned: do not try to impress the national panel with clever marketing or name dropping because they do this work for a living and they can detect a snow job in a second.

What would people most be surprised to learn about MIFF?
The Minnesota Independent Film Fund continues to be the only feature financing program of its kind in the United States. It was actually modeled after a similar program (The Canadian Film Fund) in Canada. The biggest surprise about MIFF would be the new addition of a screenwriting mentorship provided for each of the recipients. The Jerome Foundation generously funds this portion of MIFF to help the recipients develop their scripts under the mentorship of the screenwriter of their choice. The mission behind the mentorship is to make sure the foundation of the project—the script—is strong, which is the seed of any strong project.

What distinguishes MIFF from other more traditional funders?
MIFF is not a grant but a loan, and recipients are expected to pay back the loan when they start shooting their film. However, if the MIFF recipient does not secure all the financing to shoot their film they do not have to pay back the loan.

Other foundations or grantmaking organizations you admire.
I would be a fool if I did not say the McKnight Foundation—it pays most of my salary. Seriously though, I do admire programs by the Jerome Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Creative Capital, Rockefeller, basically any foundation or program that supports an artist’s growth and potential deserves admiration.

If not funding media, what would you be doing?
To be honest with you I fell into the funding arena, but it has definitely made a woman out of me. My skills as a spin doctor are in full effect. Fund administrators are the folks you hate to love and love to hate, but the filmmaking community in Minnesota is so incredibly precious, there are always a few sour grapes, but you do your best to be fair and practical and that is all I can do. Further on down the road I would like to dedicate my energy to the promotion of inspiring works by filmmakers of color to targeted audiences and individuals that can give support and resources to the filmmakers with limited outlets in this industry. The whole art of visual storytelling is so awesome to experience, let alone taking credit for impacting someone’s life with your work.

Famous last words:
Those who can make movies, and those who can’t will tell you not to make the movie in the first place.

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