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.

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