On a Monday afternoon last September, IFP Executive Director Michelle Byrd sat on a patch of industrial carpet by some pay phones outside a rest room in the Puck Building in downtown Manhattan. She was dressed in a smart black suit, and her cell phone buzzed frequently from the confines of her bag. Visitors to the bathroom brushed past her, and some were clearly surprised to find her in this odd spot. She was, after all, the doyenne of IFP’s annual Market, the industry event being held upstairs. “You of all people should have a chair!” exclaimed one woman.
But if Byrd wanted to prove that the organization formerly known as IFP New York is thriving after its split from IFP LA (now Film Independent or FIND), she could ask for no better illustration than the fact that we could not find another quiet place to have a conversation. Upstairs the Market was bustling with producers and filmmakers and distributors all looking for future independent success stories. It was just four months after the LA branch’s decision to go solo, but Byrd’s organization remained intact, and she had the apparent support of her board and members.
“When something like this happens, there is a lot of soul searching,” says Ira Deutchman, CEO of Emerging Pictures and chairman of the board of IFP. “Our board concluded that not only were we on the right track, but we were on the right track with the right leadership.”
Byrd is now firmly at the helm of the 27-year-old IFP. Last spring, rumors began to circulate that IFP LA wasn’t happy with the existing arrangement, which was a loose affiliation of the six chapters (LA, New York, Seattle, Chicago, Miami and Minneapolis/St. Paul). Each branch ran its own programs and raised its own funds, but there was an ongoing effort to offer some joint programs that would benefit all members. IFP LA had apparently raised the issue of reorganization with representatives from the other branches during a meeting in early 2005. They hoped to centralize IFP governance and programming under their own leadership. The other boards rejected that plan, and IFP LA seceded from the union. (Representatives from FIND declined to comment for this article.)
“The world of independent film has changed a lot in the last 25 years, and the independent community in Southern California has grown exponentially,” wrote Dawn Hudson, FIND’s executive director in her formal announcement to the members of the split. “With each IFP organization operating independently, we had no national structure for making decisions—yet we were bound by tradition and a common name to consult with each other and attempt to achieve consensus on many programs.”
According to New York’s leadership, many on the East Coast—and even in the Midwest—agreed that LA needed to go its own way. “Over the years, the Los Angeles organization and the New York organization have focused on different aspects of the needs of independent filmmakers. It’s not only caused confusion but a few incidences of banging into each other,” says Deutchman. “I think everyone realizes, on both coasts, that this move is great. I think it’s a revitalization for everyone.”
Though the five remaining IFP branches will continue to be autonomous, charitable organizations each with their own leadership, boards, and development programs, IFP New York emerged as the clear leader of the group. It is now, in fact, just IFP; no need to specify place. “We are the mothership,” says IFP board member Jeanne Berney with a laugh
For the time being, this arrangement suits the satellite chapters just fine. “We’ve always worked very closely with the New York chapter,” says Jane Minton, executive director of IFP Minnesota. “And I like [the New York branch’s] attitude; I like what they’re saying. Our board said, ‘let’s try it this way, where it’s top down.’ We wanted to connect to the mission of the organization in a serious and meaningful way.”
Though no one would go on record about exactly what the differences of opinion between LA and the rest of the IFP branches were—what issues had caused the branches to “bang” into each other—it is clearly more than just whether IFP would have a central hub. After the issue of leadership, it is this question of “mission” that seems to be at the core of the dissolution. “We’re in a period of sharpening the definition of who it is we serve, how we serve them, and what’s our mandate,” says Byrd. “There’s a reclaiming of what it means to be an IFP member.”
In recent years, IFP LA had focused more and more of its energies on the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Independent Spirit Awards. New York, in contrast, does not run a film festival and the IFP Market held each September no longer even shows completed feature films. The Market was launched at a time when there were few venues for independent film; today there are countless theaters, museums, even cable channels. The Market now shows works in progress, giving producers a chance to scout future talents and projects. Five years ago, says Byrd, the Market had taken on the unpleasant odor of an also-ran to the Toronto International Film Festival. “Once we got away from completed work, then it became clear why they would come here,” she says. “It’s about the future, it’s not about things that weren’t good enough to be in Toronto.”
The New York chapter runs on a considerably smaller budget and staff than IFP LA ever did, a circumstance that Byrd says she finds satisfying. “We can be very nimble,” she notes. “We’re not a massive monstrosity that can’t move without 12 other moving parts also moving.”
For all their differences of opinion on programming, both organizations have bowed to the pressure to glam up the sometimes shabby world of independent film, and both have been criticized for doing more to burnish their own star power than to serve the small-scale filmmaker.
FIND’s Indie Spirits are a controversial event after Sideways, a critical and popular darling that cost $18 million to make, was allowed into the $15 million-and-under category last year. For its part, IFP has the Gotham Awards, a celebration of films that Byrd says are “authentic and filmmaker driven.” The Gothams, which will take place this year on November 30th, do not impose budget limits or other constrictions; any film, even a studio film, is eligible for consideration in their competitive categories. “I think ‘independent’ in the olden days may have meant something about the budget,” says Byrd, “but now I think the word means something different to different people. It’s like ‘alternative;’ it’s subjective. If producers like Christine Vachon and Ted Hope self-identify as independent filmmakers, I don’t think it’s appropriate for our organization to try to invalidate how they view themselves.”
All the IFP branches would probably benefit from a little glamour to polish up the more utilitarian of their programs. Directors labs and doc-making panels do not attract sponsorship or television coverage. While FIND appears to be pouring many resources into their pursuit of the glamorous, IFP may well be going a different route. Only time will tell. “We want to reach out to the next generation,” says Byrd. “We’re asking ourselves how do you foster those filmmakers and how do you encourage people to do things that are not so popular, to make difficult and challenging films.”