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Member of the Month - Milton Tabbot, IFP


In this monthly interview series EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group.

Our EDN member of the month for March 2013 is Milton Tabbot, Senior Director of Programming, IFP – Independent Filmmaker Project, New York, USA.

IFP came into existence in 1979 when it debuted with a program in the 1979 New York Film Festival, and it has since then evolved into the oldest and largest organization of independent filmmakers in the United States, and also the premier advocate for them.  Currently, IFP represents a network of 10,000 filmmakers in New York City and around the world, and since its start IFP has supported the production of 7,000 films and provided resources to more than 20,000 filmmakers. IFP offers workshops, seminars, conferences, mentorships, and the Filmmaker Magazine, and builds audiences by hosting screenings, often in collaboration with other cultural institutions.

This year EDN also started a membership exchange with IFP, which means that EDN members can join IFP with a 20 % discount on an Individual Membership.

EDN has talked to Milton Tabbot about the work of IFP with a focus on the documentary aspect.


EDN: Can you start by telling about your background and your road to IFP and current role as Senior Director of Programming?

MT: When I was young I wanted to be an actor, so from the age of 12 until I went to university I acted in local community theater. But once in college I quickly decided I wanted to switch to film. I continued to pursue graduate cinema studies in New York, by that time knowing I was a programmer at heart – and was better suited working to help films get seen rather than making them myself. While in graduate school I began working in programming, scheduling and management at a pay-per-view cable company and, in retrospect, ended up staying there much too long.  When that company fell on hard times and I became “between jobs,” I answered a call for volunteers from the IFP to work on the 1995 Independent Feature Film Market. I loved it – it was very exciting to be at a place where new independent films were being seen for the first time – many while still in production. Within a few months of that, I was hired to come onto the full-time staff.

EDN: What is the background of IFP? Which needs in the industry did it arise from?

MT: The IFP organically grew out of an intense need felt by a group of committed, activist filmmakers and at that time (1979) not enough attention was being paid to this “New American Cinema” – a long extant but low profile strand of independent filmmaking that they believed as important and as worthy as other justly celebrated cinema movements such as the New German Cinema. These were films they thought should be seen in theaters as an alternative to American films from Hollywood. It was a movement to create awareness and a demand for these films. Practically, this was set in motion by the programming of a sidebar of American Independent films at the 1979 New York Film Festival and a separately organized set of industry screenings of additional new US independent films that were available for distribution – to which buyers in town for the festival were invited.

The industry screenings were a great success, and the “Project” was initiated to create another such industry happening the following year. Concurrent with the organization of the next year’s film market came the growing awareness of additional ongoing needs of independent filmmakers, so the organization IFP came into being as a membership organization which could provide services, workshops, vendor and production discounts, and serve as a liaison to and educator on what was then – and is still now – a continually evolving landscape.

EDN: How is IFP organised and funded today, and what is the overall mission?

MT: The IFP offices are based in Brooklyn New York, in the DUMBO neighborhood, and our staff currently numbers about 14 full-time workers. Since 1983 IFP has been incorporated and classified as a non-profit, charitable organization in the US. As such, much like individual independent film productions, IFP must raise its budget each year, and its individual programs are funded by a variety of sources: some government, state, and local agency support (National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, New York City Department of Cultural Affairs), foundation support (Academy Foundation, Hollywood Foreign Press Association), corporate support, sponsorships through our annual awards show and fundraiser, the Gotham Independent Film Awards, individual donors, member fees, and other earned income, such as ticket sales and accreditation fees to our events. 

In terms of mission, IFP believes that independent films enrich the universal language of cinema, seeding the global culture with new ideas, kindling awareness and fostering activism. IFP programs provide filmmakers access to the tools to develop and present their vision, and audiences with an opportunity to discover new work.  Through workshops, seminars, conferences, mentorships and our quarterly magazine, Filmmaker Magazine, IFP schools its members in the art, technology and business of independent filmmaking.

EDN: What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in the industry since the beginning of IFP and how has the organisation developed in the more than 30 years it has existed?       

MT: Well, there have been massive changes in the past 30+ years. As noted earlier, IFP began when there was little knowledge of American “independent” films or filmmakers outside of museum screenings or within historian and cinephile circles. There was no independent “industry” and in the US only a handful of film festivals of note. The next decade brought rapid visibility to the phenomenon of independent film and specific filmmakers, and independent distribution companies, numerous production companies, studio “specialty” divisions, and more art houses for independent theatrical releases all came into being. John Pierson, Peter Biskind, Christine Vachon, and others have chronicled this period in books quite extensively and well. In the late 80’s and early 90’s there was a hunger for these films outside the US also, and American filmmakers could go to a market like the European Film Market in Berlin with their films and do quite well with sales.

By the time I came to IFP in the mid-90s, this frenzy was probably just past its peak, and the industry was becoming oversaturated with the number of indie films to deal with – though buyers were still afraid of missing the next indie “hit.” Whereas in the early years of its history the IFP’s mandate in its then-named Independent Feature Film Market was to give as many filmmakers as possible a forum to screen and pitch their projects, by the late 90’s this oversaturation demanded a need to become much more selective. A much smaller “Project Forum” came into being – particularly over the past 10 years – through which IFP now puts its support behind approximately 150 projects a year – 50-60 of those being documentaries.

While I am involved with many programs at IFP, my concentration since 2004 has been in documentary – and overall this has been a very exciting time in terms of the range and creativity that continues to expand the field. There have of course been technology changes – when I started at IFP virtually every documentary was shot on 16mm or super-16 – which means it’s much less expensive to shoot a documentary than years ago, and even to edit it to a certain degree of finishing. But there still exists a bottleneck in the funding on the front end and distribution opportunities at the end. Broadcast and digital platforms are possibilities for some, but many more filmmakers in the US now are exploring ways to self-distribute through a combination of theatrical bookings, community and event-based screenings, and other non-theatrical screenings to get films in front of audiences and raise visibility and eventual digital platform possibilities for their films.

Despite the continuing need for funding, and the need to monetize one’s completed films, the availability of digital platforms and streaming sites is certainly changing the way films are being seen. This is a broad generalization, but in the US, I see documentary filmmakers who are working at modest budget levels able to negotiate these new waters more nimbly than independent producers working in fiction films at the same or usually higher budget levels. The financial challenges are much stiffer for those trying to enter the more traditional funding and distribution models that we’ve known for 30 years.

EDN: Which are the major events organised by IFP and how do these support the independent film sector?

MT: Our largest event is still the founding program for the organization – originally called the Independent Feature Film Market and now known as Independent Film Week, with the core component of that event being the Project Forum. This is a meetings-based ”pitch” forum with two narrative sections (Emerging Narrative and No Borders International Co-production Market - both for projects at the script stage) and the Spotlight on Documentaries section – for documentaries at any stage of production or post-production. Our goal with the Project Forum is to present these promising projects to the world of buyers – financiers, sales companies, broadcasters, foundations and funders, theatrical distributors, festival programmers – anyone who can help the project move forward in a significant way. Industry delegates choose projects of interest to meet with based on dossier materials and work samples which are provided online. Running concurrently with the Project Forum is the Independent Filmmaker Conference of panels open to both Project Forum filmmakers and other filmmakers without projects.

Another key IFP program is the much smaller but very impactful Independent Filmmaker Labs, going into its ninth year, which annually selects 20 feature film projects (10 narrative; 10 documentary) that are in post-production at the rough assembly or rough cut stage. The labs were created because we saw that there were a number of promising films each year that were failing to get the attention they deserved because they had sent out their films to festivals and the industry prematurely, before receiving critical creative feedback, and that frequently the filmmakers needed a support system and mentorship on how to take a film out into the world.

As I have mentioned already – it’s a new and ever-changing landscape. So in the labs we spend three week-long sessions spread over the course of a year in which these projects finish their films, and work through defining their audience, their marketing plans, and their distribution plans. Should they not receive broadcast or traditional distribution deals – they are going to need to implement an alternate plan. Recent documentaries to emerge from the lab in the past year include Alias Ruby Blade (IDFA 2012; Tribeca 2013); Our Nixon (Rotterdam 2013, SXSW, New Directors/New Films 2013, Hot Docs 2013); These Birds Walk (Hot Docs 2013, SXSW 2013). And Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton (SXSW 2013, Tribeca 2013).

All projects selected for the Project Forum in September and projects selected for the Labs participate free of charge.

Scott Macaulay is editor of our quarterly print publication Filmmaker Magazine and the highly trafficked Filmmaker blog, both of which are great resources for filmmakers everywhere.

Locally we host a number of other regular events in New York, many of which are streamed in part or are converted into podcasts: ENVISION: Addressing Global Issues through Documentaries is an annual conference produced in partnership with the United Nations Department of Public Information to encourage the production of impactful issue driven films and media; From Script to Screen is a conference targeted to writers working across multiple platforms – film, television, web; and there are monthly member screenings and additional panels and mixers.

Most recently, as of November 2012, IFP and Filmmaker Magazine assumed the programming of feature films for Brooklyn’s 60-seat reRun Theater for week-long theatrical runs. Our programming team specifically targets filmmakers in the process of self-distribution, who otherwise would have financial difficulty securing a NYC theatrical run. IFP assists all programmed films with publicity, marketing, and press help, and provides filmmakers with a percentage of all tickets sold.

EDN: Who is the typical IFP member?

MT: The largest portion of membership is comprised of a mix of established, emerging, or aspiring filmmakers. There is a good portion of the industry that are members and many of those receive membership through accreditation to Independent Film Week. There is a small percentage comprised of film lovers who join primarily to attend our free public screenings. The membership is 55% male and 45% female. About half (51%) of members live in the general New York City area, with most of the others living elsewhere in the US – and 8% living outside the US.

EDN: How big a part of the IFP members are solely working with documentaries and how big a role do documentaries play in the events organised by IFP?

MT: I would estimate that approximately 40% of IFP members are documentary focused, and roughly half of our major programs are devoted to supporting doc projects and filmmakers.

EDN: Last month at the European Film Market in Berlin the IFP hosted a number of sessions together with Meet the Docs and EDN on differences in working in Europe and the States. Can you recap some of the prominent differences discussed when it comes to funding and producing documentaries?

MT: The differences between funding and producing documentaries in the US and Europe are substantial. Primarily, in Europe there exists a very structured system of accessing state and regional funds that provides the backbone of financing. Working in tandem with funding from broadcasters – complete funding can be pulled together. For most producers, if that funding is not able to be secured from the major funds– the project does not move forward.

In the US, independent documentary producers work completely differently. In general there are no large government funds. Directors and producers do not wait for their budget to be in place before beginning production. This will vary depending on the type of documentary, but the frequent process is to shoot enough to edit a sample that is needed to help raise funding from a range of foundations, documentary funds, individuals, crowd funding - and the use of personal funds - while production continues. It’s a start and stop process, and when there’s an extended slowdown, it usually comes during post-production. More experienced producer/directors with track records can also meet directly with US broadcasters and international ones, while more emerging filmmakers attempt to work key pitching and meetings forums into their process.

EDN: You can also be a member of IFP if you live outside the United States. What are the benefits of joining if you are an independent filmmaker living outside the States?

MT: The benefits for international filmmakers are the same as for anyone in the US who lives outside of NYC. Chiefly this is access to digital assets that exist online for members only – hundreds of hours of audio and video podcasts of IFP seminars and public programs; digital copies of our industry directory from Independent Film Week; some blog posts and interviews available only to members, and the digital edition of Filmmaker Magazine and access to the digital archive of back issues.

EDN: Do you have any piece of advice to a European independent striving to make a film in the States?

MT: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Minneapolis, Boston, Austin all have active independent film communities. Connect with a film community nearest to where you want to shoot or produce your film; film societies and non-profits there can be a great source of information and can connect you to local producers who could offer help. Having a US-based producer or co-producer could open more doors. State film commissions exist in virtually every state to assist film productions with locations and permits. If it’s a documentary – depending on the subject of the film – it’s possible you could have access to funding from foundations and other funds even though you are not US-based. Start early – a lot of this research and groundwork takes a lot of time.

EDN: What lies next for you and IFP?

MT: Personally, I will be most likely be headed to the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in North Carolina in March and Hot Docs in May, with Tribeca Film Festival sandwiched in between, and selecting projects for our Documentary Lab which takes place mid-May. Then I will be hunkered down to screen and select documentary projects for September’s Project Forum at Independent Film Week from mid-May to mid-July.

During that time IFP will be preparing to launch the new “Made in New York” Media Center. In October, 2012 IFP was selected as the developer and operator of the “Made in NY” Media Center after a request for proposals was issued by New York’s Board of Economic Development in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Media & Entertainment. The Media Center aims to work with content creators, storytellers and technology companies to collaborate across platforms and industries and create new business opportunities and art works. The center will contain classrooms and educational programs, a public café, media arts gallery, a state-of-the-art ‘whitebox’ screening/multimedia room, community workspace intended for individual use and co-working workspace for small firms and start ups for extended rentals. The goal is to bring together professionals from the film, television, advertising, new media, gaming, marketing and branding industries for collaboration and new opportunities. A trans-media incubator will be a key part of it. The Center will be located in DUMBO, Brooklyn, not far from IFP’s office and is targeted to open in summer 2013.


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