Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The end of an era?

The situation in the world of nonprofit media arts centers has never been more dire. In the past few years, we have seen the closing of several important media centers - Boston Film/Video being just one. Now, AIVF is having some trouble, and while I can't speak to the actual situation at any one center, it is no secret that there has been turmoil and/or massive change at Film Arts Foundation, IDA, IFP (and some of its sister orgs), Film/Video Arts...the list could go on and on, and doesn't even consider what were once strong regional media centers that are also now close to crumbling. While none will admit it, nearly every nonprofit media center and/or media arts service organization is near death.

Several factors have led to this situation. First, and most importantly, the field has been largely abandoned by its traditional support structure - Government and Foundations. All of these centers began in the early 1970's with strong support from precursors of and then the NEA. For many years, additional and substantial support came from the foundation community. NEA money began to disappear during the culture wars, although they still make some grants to these institutions. Foundation support began to dry up in the mid 90's and is shrinking rapidly.

The loss of Foundation support has been particularly painful and unfortunate. As Foundations priorities have shifted, they have switched from general operating support (money to be used as the nonprofit saw fit, essentially) to program support, or money that can only be spent on certain initiatives. Witness the explosion of youth media a few years ago - yes, cameras got cheaper and people wanted to train youth, but the youth media movement was largely started by a few program officers at a handful of foundations. Nonprofits, always desperate for money, shifted their entire programs into youth media, and guess what? When those program officer's whims changed and the money dried up - these center's programs began to die. Currently, the foundation community seems to feel that it is no longer necessary to fund the majority of media centers unless they are working on a handful of issues that fit the current trends in foundation support. To make matters worse, foundation support for the arts is declining in all sectors, so these media center's must look elsewhere for support.

While the foundation community needs to take some of the blame, so do the nonprofits themselves. All of these centers have been underfunded for years - most have operating budgets under 1 million, in fact, most have budgets under $500,000. Their staffs often make much less than $30,000 a year, many work part-time, with hourly wages that are below national averages. This has meant that each center has a hard time attracting talented individuals to the field and/or retaining them. On top of this, the staff and leadership of these organizations feel a strong demand for the work that they do - they hear from their membership constantly about the value of their programs. So, they are reluctant to cut programs, cut staff or make change. As a result, many are going under because they can't make the drastic changes necessary to survival. The sky has been falling for years, since at least 1995, and leadership wasn't able or willing to see the big picture and affect massive change.

Too, there is much overlap in the field. When I was in Atlanta, at least five groups started - within four years - whose missions overlapped with that of IMAGE Film & Video. Which meant competition for the same limited funds, all to do essentially the same job - to serve filmmakers and their audiences. The situation is the same nationally, and remains so. The field needs to consider consolidation, sharing of resources (especially back office type functions) and yes, even mergers as appropriate.

Nonprofit media centers are also being killed by an essential part of their own structure - their board of directors, mandated by law. Almost every single center has a board that consists of filmmakers, friends of film and people who love the mission, but very few people who can raise money. No nonprofit can survive this way - you have to have board members who can "Give, Get or Get off" - give money, get money or quit. The board of most of these organizations refuse to give or raise money, and they've also been ineffective at seeing the big picture and forcing policy changes to change their organizations for the future. Essentially, most of these boards have been building their resume while suffocating the field.

Last, those centers that are dying can essentially be categorized as those who didn't recognize and shift to the changing nature of the field due to digital technologies. Media artists today don't often need (or don't think they need) cameras, edit systems, markets, magazines and the like. Things are different. What they do need are a community in which to connect, advocacy for policies that affect them, good information they can use, money to make their work, and new ways to distribute it. These can all be found or developed online, and these centers haven't made the shift. Let's face it, if these nonprofits had been thinking of the future, there would have been no need to start an indieWire, ShootingPeople or an or the like. Not that these aren't great developments, but that they were created out of a void that shouldn't have existed.

Many people will say, well, perhaps they don't need to exist anymore, their time has run out. Why does it matter if we lose places like AIVF? Because they have been and could be the lifeblood of this field. I will speak in terms of could be, because even those that used to be relevant no longer are. If media centers can repurpose, and take into account technological changes, they could be a central hub for media artists to connect - to find crew, to find out how to solve technical issues with their gear, to share their media, to get advice on distribution agreements, contracts and the myriad needs everyone has, especially when they first start.

Major policy changes are being proposed that will forever affect media artists' ability to create and distribute their work - and we need an advocate who can speak on our behalf, as a group, to get what we need. At one time, groups such as AIVF advocated so strongly that ITVS was formed to help independents. As many producers are now opening their contracts with ITVS and finding things they can't accept, they need a group that through sheer membership numbers can advocate on their behalf to change these contracts. Places like AIVF could lobby not just government, but also corporations to change policies (such as archival footage pricing) to better serve our needs.

When the MPAA (and others) can shut down a technology that could help independents distribute their films without a gatekeeper (Grokster), and can claim that technology is only good for piracy (a blatant lie), filmmakers need someone who can tell them the truth and fight the MPAA to ensure our films remain distributable through the new technologies. Make no mistake about it - the gatekeepers want to maintain their control, and without places like AIVF, there will be no one to stand up and fight on behalf of the "little" filmmakers.

Want cheaper health insurance? AIVF. Want to make sure you can upload your short to the internet as fast as Fox can, and that it can be found? Laws are being considered to make sure you can't - and AIVF could fight them. Want to ask someone whether a contract you've been given for distribution of your film is fair? Want to find out how to raise money for your film? Just moved to a new city, and simply want to find a home with others like you - creative people making media - and connect to help each other make films? These are all made possible through places such as AIVF, and when they die, our culture and our society will be worse for it.

The stumbling of the Boston Film and Video Foundation should have been seen as the canary in the mineshaft - the first sign of systemic change for the worse. AIVF's troubles, and I am hopeful they will rise above them, are just the next in a line of possible futures. It is not melodramatic to see this as another ominous sign. What's going to happen to smaller, nonprofit distributors, especially as many of their leaders near retirement? What about places like Anthology Film Archives, one of the only places caring for experimental film? PBS is under serious attack and simultaneously has no clue as to what it should do in the future. What would happen if both ITVS and POV disappeared? Most remaining arthouse cinemas are nonprofit, and most festivals are as well, where will your film show if they collapse next? Not at Regal, and possibly not even on the web.

Yes, we have some great new possibilities - ITunes, indieWire and SF360, BitTorrent and the like. We also have some growing for-profit film festivals such as Tribeca and SXSW, and channels such as IFC, Sundance and VOD services such as Here. But these are corporate entities, they are beholden to their shareholders, not to the needs of the independent community. Even those with good intentions, such as indieWire, can't take on all that a place like AIVF could offer - it's beyond their means or their own mission. Only a place with the public good in mind can serve our needs as media artists.

With increasing consolidation of the media, a very real and silent push by corporations and governments to limit the ability of smaller individuals (such as an independent filmmaker) to create and disseminate their work through the new technologies and with an increasingly limited sphere in which an independent can make their work and profit from it - there has never been a greater need for places like AIVF. There has never been a time of greater need for a strong system of national and regional support for the field, through places such as AIVF, Film Arts Foundation and others like them in this sector - and yes people, they are all near death. If you want any of them to survive, get involved now - whether through money or ideas, because otherwise I predict 2006 will be the year the nonprofit media movement dies. The definition of independent is debated regularly, but could soon just mean one thing: alone.


Anonymous said...

Thoughtful and thought provoking analysis of the field. How come no one is commenting? As the author says, it is critical to get some discussion going around these issues. If we don't, how soon will we be obsolete and out of business?

Anonymous said...

"the (media arts) field has been largely abandoned by its traditional support structure" - yes it has. it's also been abandoned by people who actually make films, and for good reason.

once upon a time, "support" for independent filmmakers meant access to equipment, to information, and to funding sources. a real need existed, and foundations coughed up money to bring you things like the aivf festival guide book and media arts classes at places like FVA and journals like "international documentary magazine." it was about getting new voices heard, and what's so wrong with that?

but none of that is necessary anymore - if you're reasonably smart and tenacious you can get access, you can find info, and you can hustle for funds - without aivf. in fact, they have precious little to offer you. aivf is like the yellow pages in a world powered by the internet, and quite frankly it's hard to feel sorry for them - they took their eye off the ball long ago.

the very reason that all the second generation outfits you mention (indiewire, shootingpeople, etc.) have legs is not b/c they're essentially web sites and not big offices in soho with high rent (like aivf) - it's because they're about the business. that is, they help people learn about, and get started, making films and television for a living.

on the other hand aivf, and probably many other orgs like it, found years back that the road to funding their own operation was paved with politics. they started as a group of independents banding together to help each other make films, but who was going to give you money to do that post 1980? the money was in "advocating" for minority filmmakers, for "underserved audiences", and all that. i'm not saying that's all bad, but that change was a major one, because it has everything to do with getting themselves funded and very little to do with the challenge at hand (getting films made, remember?). even itvs, which aivf was involved in founding, has gone political hook, line, and sinker. and no matter what brand of politics you smoke, it's a dangerous habit. today itvs funds films celebrating gay boyscouts and black power and pbs gives bill moyers the star treatment. but in case you haven't noticed, a huge backlash is under way, and if you see films on pbs in a few years championing home schooling, abstinence education, or dissing the UN as irrelevant, you'll have "advocacy" organizations like aivf to thank.

and oh - aivf health insurance? a joke. they don't even run their own program. does not compare with freelancer's union, which any filmmaker with a job can qualify for.

Karl said...

Very thought provoking indeed. I've been a member of AIVF for some time now, and only recently lapsed on my membership due to several factors, but after reading this post I think I'll give them another shot. It is true that AIVF is an important organization in that it is an advocate for independent media makers, and in a land that is becoming more and more corporate it is important to have an organization such as AIVF in your corner. Where I have a problem with AIVF is that they seem to becoming an "exclusive" type organization which gives little for it pricey membership. I would much rather see AIVF become a hub for film-makers and media content providers. This includes other types of media makers such as students, and media makers who live & work "outside the box". What I mean by this is people who work in other fields, but who have an interest in film-making and or media. With technology changing rapidly more and more people who have worked or studied in other fields are making films & videos. These are the people that should be inclusive, and not excluded. It seems AIVF seems to want or cater more to the art or the academic arena then to other fields. In other words AIVF needs to be more inclusive. If it doesn't I fear the end will e near for AIVF