Monday, March 26, 2007

Ann Arbor, Censorship and Advocacy

The Ann Arbor Film Festival recently announced a small crisis – in that their state government is threatening to pull their funding due to supposedly “indecent” material being shown (Ann Arbor ends up rejecting the funding to maintain its integrity). There’s not been much on the film blogs about this, although Gabe Wardell wrote a nice summary recently, and Ann Arbor itself has mentioned the issues in a series of advertisements on IndieWire. The Ann Arbor website sums up the issue as well, so I won’t dwell on the details here.

This is quite disconcerting, although not unexpected. It also brings up another reason to mourn the loss of AIVF. Back in the day (long ago, I realize), AIVF would have quickly been rallying the troops in defense of this festival, as well as helping other nonprofits think about these issues and how to prepare for similar attacks. Even in their later stages (close to death) they had staff who would at least make sure the issue was known to all their members. None of the current nonprofits, mine included, have risen to fill this void. Part of this is because we are glacially moving ships, slow to raise the funds needed to cover the work of advocacy. Part of it is because Foundations aren’t funding this work anymore. But, I suspect, part of it is that most of us are too busy raising sponsorship dollars to worry about anything else but our own survival, and/or simply don’t have interest. It’s a sad state of affairs when fest organizers will attend, and bloggers blog incessantly about, a film festival summit that teaches more cities how to open fests and raise money, but none can get bothered to organize about some truly fundamental issues of concern to them all. I’m just as guilty, because blogging doesn’t always equal advocacy – but it seems like we need a conversation about this serious gap in the field.

Gabe also mentioned the little controversy started by the American Family Foundation over the NEA’s funding of Sundance. The NEA had only funded the Institute for its educational Labs program, not the festival, but Wildmon’s group tried to claim that the NEA had funded two controversial films as well as their screenings (by sponsoring the festival, which it hadn’t done). The NEA sent out a press statement clarifying that they were being attacked for something they didn’t do, but I imagine the zealots didn’t notice the distinction. What’s most worrying here is that the NEA didn’t seem to take the time to also argue that they do fund festivals and support freedom of speech, expression and creativity. Would be nice, but they probably feel they are attacked enough that they can’t be too vigorous in their defense of the arts. Once again, an advocacy need on behalf of the field that is missing. It seems to me that Sundance themselves could take on this role in these particular instances. I don’t think they should become an advocacy organization in general, but as the largest film fest in the US, they could have an impact by publicly affirming the underlying principles of which all these fests are a part, and by even rising to the NEA’s defense. Redford’s name carries. It’s not in their general mission, but they could be a powerful member of a coalition at least. Anyway, the point remains the same- we’ve got some needs that aren’t being addressed by any of the existing organizations (including mine) at this time.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Future of Nonprofit Film at SXSW – Wrap

My trip to SXSW was great, except that I missed all of the good films. I had to leave early for work reasons, so I missed the many great films and panels that I keep hearing about on other blogs. So, kudos to Matt, Jarod and the rest of the SXSW team.

The panel I moderated went pretty well – The Future of Nonprofits and Film. I was surprised that people even showed up for this one, especially on the first day after a great opening party. Before we started, I bet we’d get three people. Rebecca Campbell of Austin Film Society bet 30, and we ended up with a good 40-50 people. I asked the audience at the beginning how many ran, worked in or wanted to work in nonprofits, and more than half raised their hands. There were many familiar faces – from the Brattle, Woodstock Film Fest, Janet Pierson and others from Austin Film Society and Mobile Film School just to name a few.

The panel started a bit slow, as everyone wanted to talk about what they did and how their nonprofits were helping people and adapting to the changes in the field – and they are. The Austin Film Society, for example, has made a concerted effort to build a substantial reserve, to ensure their capacity to keep serving the field. Their big Gala had been the night before and they raised something like $400,000 for the organization and plan to put about $150,000 in direct grants to filmmakers in Texas through their Texas Film Production Fund, all while building up a substantial reserve to keep them prepared for any downturn. (apologies Rebecca if I have the numbers wrong). Tracie of Brave New Films, Robert Greenwald’s nonprofit arm, spoke about how they’ve made their outreach/film party tools available online for filmmakers and other nonprofits – smartly addressing the most pressing issue for most filmmakers – reaching an audience. Gabe Wardell of IMAGE spoke about his organization’s plans to build local based programs that can better serve a regional and even national audience.

Everyone was also quite open, if guarded, about the challenges they face. We spent a fair amount of time discussing the need to diversify funding. It’s quite common to hear nonprofit types talk about the need for more sponsorship, donors, etc. But, it was clear that a few people were noticing some ominous trends in these areas. For example, many of us, especially film festivals, have become quite reliant on corporate support. But corporate marketing dollars aren’t here for some altruistic reason – they are here to advertise to large numbers of people. And, many of the traditional supporters of these events are realizing that their money can be better spent elsewhere (sorry, I take the negative tone, because I generally agree with them). Furthermore, there is an increasing trend by some larger organizations to expand nationally. Without picking on them at all, take AFI for example. They now have a festival in LA, Silverdocs in Maryland and the just launched AFI Dallas Film Festival. It’s much easier to get big sponsors this way, and it’s a detriment to the established, smaller players. After the panel, I saw Bart Weiss of the Dallas Video Festival, and without being negative, he was clear that AFI Dallas has affected his future. It seemed to be a room-wide consensus that we’ll see more of this soon. One could easily imagine any of the bigger fests – the AFIs, Sundance, Tribeca’s of the world, expanding to a town near you soon, and probably having a negative impact on your local fest.

The argument against this trend is that a large, national fest/organization doesn’t have the local connection and the money-“leaves town” so to speak. This also came up in regards to places like Landmark taking the traditional role of the smaller regional theaters. There was much bemoaning of this situation, but I have to say that I am a bit conflicted on this, and think I come down as follows:

Theoretically, these theatres, festivals and organizations started to fill a gap in their community. In the 70s, when many started, they were the only game in town, and without them, it would be impossible to see an indie or arthouse film in many cities. They did a great job, struggling all the way. In fact, I would argue that they succeeded greater than anyone acknowledges. To use an example close to the panel, the Austin Film Society literally paved the way for a film culture in their town that now supports indie film at SXSW and the Alamo. You could argue these places couldn’t exist without AFS. So, if we’ve made it so that a larger entity can come in and serve this need, or a commercial theater, then we need to move on to some other gaps. If you find yourself competing with an AFI or a Landmark, then I would consider that a sign that you’ve succeeded and its time to move on to something else. There’s lots of good work, and good films, to be done/shown. Along these same lines, while I do believe in regionalism, and in smaller community minded organizations, the power of diversity and all that – lets face it, as a field we’ve been struggling, and often because we can’t ever “go to scale.” So, I applaud those who can go to scale – if, and it’s a big if, done properly then these newer models could be even more successful than we’ve been so far. Last, and this doesn’t apply to everyone, but I feel many of these organizations/fests have been suffering from an unacknowledged bout with a lack of imagination. We all need to think imaginatively about new models for serving the field, and may the best models rise to the top.

That said, it was also clear that many of these nonprofits, but not all, serve some key needs in the field that perhaps need more attention. Panelists and audience members all brought up the need for advocacy, community, money (to artists), screening and distribution opportunities and in-depth education/information. The death of AIVF and the fact that no one has really filled that gap (although there are some small things, nothing to scale) was felt by all in the room. And their seemed to be an underlying acknowledgement that some places are in danger of becoming irrelevant without some major changes.

We also had more than one brief conversation about the recent controversy at FIND over their tax status, service to the field and how they count the Spirit Awards and LA Film Fest as fundraisers or programs. One journalist asked if it was appropriate to take them to task on this question. My answer, and I think the consensus in the room, was that as a public charity it is absolutely correct for a journalist or anyone else to ask how a nonprofit is serving the field – it is a public trust, essentially, that gets certain benefits because of its service. But, everyone who spoke, felt that FIND was correct in changing their returns (if a bit late and awkward) to say that the two events are principally programmatic events serving the field. The film festival, in particular, is undoubtedly a service to the field. The Spirit Awards can easily be argued as one of the more important services to filmmakers, although a few of us agreed that this one was anyone’s call – plenty of similar groups in other art forms could make this same argument, but count these as fundraisers. Bottom line – it was ok to look into this, but the reporter seemed to take it too far, and FIND seems justified. It’s also clear, however, that nonprofits need to expect more scrutiny, and my personal opinion is that openness and transparency are the only way to nip these problems in the bud.

At the end of the panel, many people lingered for quite some time. We debated whether AIVF strayed too far from advocacy and this hastened its death, we discussed who was missing from the conversation, we formed some beginning ideas of ways to work together to fill some gaps in the field, we traded some war stories and spoke even more openly about our challenges. A good 15 people or more stuck around to passionately talk about these issues, which is probably in itself a good sign for the field.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Novel Approach to Distribution and the Public Domain

Jonathan Lethem, the popular author of "You Don't Love Me Yet," and "The Fortress of Solitude" has hit upon a novel way (pun probably intended) to sell rights to his book. According to an article in the New York Times, and subsequently in Variety, he plans to give it away with no option fee, but with the stipulation that he eventually be paid 2% of the budget (once the film gets a distribution deal); and that after 5 years of exploitation, the ancillary rights enter the public domain. According to his website (and I first saw this quote in the NYTimes), he is "fitful of some of the typical ways art is commodified."
Bravo. Lethem is doing two really cool things. One, he is making it possible for smaller indie producers to take a chance on this, because they don't have to pay an extraordinary fee upfront. You agree to pay him based on the budget, but only if it sells. So, let's say you end up making the film for $2-Million, you sell it and owe him 2% which is $40,000. If you end up only raising $500K then you owe him less, and if for get the point. This in itself is a good model to consider for other aspects of film. For example, what if you could use stock footage in your doc based on this model, or even a richer variant - what if you agreed to pay a percentage of your royalties back to the stock footage holder based on the length of time the clip runs in your film (in proportion to the film) and on how much it sells? This would take away a lot of risk for producers (my film may never make a dime), and for rights-holders (I get nothing up front, but get more if the film is a success, and get my fair share proportionally). Anyway, it's a cool idea.

Second, he is preempting many copyright issues from the beginning. The film could be remade, an adaptation could be made, a etc without a lawsuit, or the possibility of being stopped by a lawyer. Why care about this? Well, think of "The Wind Done Gone." The book, a parody of "Gone with the Wind" was almost halted because of Lawsuits claiming that it wasn't fair use. It was, but without a really good lawyer (Joe Beck, of Atlanta, one of the best), many authors would have caved in to the legal threats and a valuable cultural conversation would have been missed. Imagine further if Disney couldn't have made "Snow White" because it copies the Brothers Grimm. (You don't have to imagine the irony that they then over-protect the resultant work, Snow White, in a manner that stifles creativity, we're living with those copyright laws).

Lethem cares about this deeply. He recently wrote a brilliant article for Harper's on this issue, and he understands that the ever-increasing copyright/commerce regime is harming creativity. He thus creates a legal way to ensure that his work can contribute to culture in an ongoing manner, and simultaneously allows the producer to exploit their rights for five years and make back their money.

It would be interesting to know if he intends for the DVD, etc of the work to enter the public domain after 5 years. I don't think this is what he intends, from the wording on his website, but that too would be a good idea. Yes, it limits the profit potential, but it allows a profit to be made, and ensures that the work could be used for education, etc and that it won't end up "stuck on the shelf" like so many films.

Anyway, what Lethem is acknowledging is that all authorship, all creativity, stems from something else. He is building upon other stories, other knowledge - perhaps creatively, but always, already having been done. Lethem's article in Harper's ends with a pretty nifty quote, itself referring back to a Saul Bellow quote, which nicely sums up his thinking:

As a novelist, I'm a cork on the ocean of story, a leaf on a windy day. Pretty soon I'll be blown away. For the moment I'm grateful to be making a living, and so must ask that for a limited time (in the Thomas Jefferson sense) you please respect my small, treasured usemonopolies. Don't pirate my editions; do plunder my visions. The name of the game is Give All. You, reader, are welcome to my stories. They were never mine in the first place, but I gave them to you. If you have the inclination to pick them up, take them with my blessing.

This is just one small new business model, but it's an interesting one and one that should be explored further.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

SXSW and Nonprofits

If you've made it past the title of this post, maybe I have a chance of enticing you to stop on by the panel I am moderating at SXSW - The future of nonprofits and film. Still reading? It may actually be interesting, we'll have: Rebecca Campbell from Austin Film Society, which was founded by Richard Linklater; Gabe Wardell, the new head of IMAGE, and I promise to ask him what was the worst mess that I left behind for him to inherit; and Tracy Fleischman of Brave New Films, founded by Robert Greenwald.

I have an agenda that includes the good, bad and ugly. We'll talk about what nonprofits are doing to help filmmakers, whether filmmakers should start their own nonprofit, some recent failures in this arena and controversies, such as the recent dust-up over FIND and the Spirit Awards. One panelist already dropped out from fear - ok, they were just bored with the topic, but I like rumors - and others may follow. Join us this Saturday at the Austin Convention Center.