Artist Service organizations should stop serving artists
Ok, I’m being hyperbolic here, but bear with me. Back in the ’70s, many nonprofits started to spring up to help filmmakers (and other artists). For film, the idea was simple – buying a film camera and equipment and then a Steenbeck to edit a film with was super-expensive. Band together, apply for grants and voila – you’ve got access to equipment. This is how IMAGE Film & Video of Atlanta, GA came together, an organization I used to run, and which still exists in a different form as the Atlanta Film Festival. In fact, that’s how many (but not all) film festivals came together – those same filmmakers thought, “geesh, now that I’ve made my indie film, where the heck can I show it?” So they started film festivals to show their work, and soon after the work of their sisters and brothers from around the US and the world. Nonprofit film organizations launched across the country – helping filmmakers through education, equipment access and training, screening venues, and then sometimes with advice and access to funding (re-grants) and market/industry connections. Whether big events like the IFP Market, or small,like bringing some industry vets to speak on a panel in Atlanta, these organizations could help connect these “disconnected” voices to decision-makers from NYC, LA and major international markets.
But today, filmmaking tools are cheap and ubiquitous, and you can find and audience and screen your work for free online. Heck, more people can watch it on their phone or on a connected large screen than even the biggest festivals can service. As a regional filmmaker, I can learn from websites like Filmmaker Magazine and NoFilmSchool or random bloggers about any aspect of the art, craft and business of film. Yes, we still have a problem with diversity and for some, access, but let’s admit – a lot has changed. The nonprofit sector? Not so much. An enormous amount of nonprofit money goes towards putting on artist development projects that can be better accomplished online, or that are obsolete in today’s marketplace.
The problem today is not access, but discovery. In a glutted marketplace of content, it’s increasingly hard to stand out from the crowd. Nearly every dollar spent on artist training and development should be shifted to audience development and helping to connect audiences to filmmaker’s work. And this will have the added benefit of still helping artists, by giving them a bigger audience which should lead to more money earned back from their films.
Yes, many artists will bemoan any decrease in funding for the creation of work. But we don’t face a crisis in the creation of good work, rather the crisis is in getting that work seen. The key here is to make sure that any new programs in audience development include some mechanism for positive cash flow to filmmakers for the screening of their work. Right now, too many programming efforts don’t reimburse filmmakers for their screenings. Organizations that program films, run film festivals and connect work with audiences will need to start paying filmmakers for these screenings. That’s a big hurdle for most film festivals – I know because I’ve run a few, but it’s a hurdle we need to conquer for independent film to survive and thrive.
The main concern I have with ending direct artist support for creation is the possible impact on diversity behind the lens – we need more diversity, not less. And the market – investors and studios – tend to still support white males. But plenty of diverse work is being made too, but not enough of it is being seen. This is a big problem, and I’d argue it’s mainly because so many festival and venue programmers, and acquisition executives, are white men, but again the nonprofit industry should build programs to address these issues. Let’s think hard about how to create innovative solutions to bring more diverse films to a wider audience instead of just focusing on the (relatively easier) part of just getting them funded.
What would this look like? I don’t know, but I’d like to see just as many new projects here as we have grant funds and markets/pitch forums. For every GoodPitch, we should have a GreatAudiences program. For every Hot Docs forum, we should have a new audience focused program, and the same for every Creative Capital grant. Note – these are all great programs, and I’m using them to showcase the type of excellence we should seek in audience development.
The first thing we should do is work towards every festival that is not a major market (meaning below the big guns like Sundance) starts working towards paying filmmakers for screenings. Second, we already have a pretty vibrant theater space – go to the Arthouse Convergence and you’ll quickly be dispelled of any notions that arthouse theaters aren’t doing great work to build audiences. That said, the nonprofit sector could be doing more to help them discover diverse voices and then work to ensure those screenings are attended. We can definitely help bring audiences to the work they program, and someone needs to build a tool that helps us find that work again when it finally makes it online.
We need more national screening programs, for films that may not warrant a theatrical. At Patagonia (my client) we’ve been having a huge success with getting audiences out to our tours, with our last film averaging 1500 people per screening. There used to be more film tours, but I believe Southern Circuit (where I also worked) is one of the few still around. I’d love to see a grant that allowed Thom Powers to take Stranger Than Fiction on the road, for example, with guest filmmakers in tow and being paid to attend.
We need more online curation – and no, that’s not easy. I launched a start-up focused on just this, and it folded. Nearly every online platform for managing one’s queue or sharing films has failed or is stagnant with no real consumer use. Perhaps that’s another thing nonprofit’s could tackle, and the foundations that fund them.
I admire the program Sundance just launched to help filmmakers with distribution, but we need more programs like this, and the foundation world needs to fund distribution and marketing more (and creation, and “impact” less).
Ok, like I said at the start, I don’t really want to disband artist support for creation. But I do think we need to start spending equal energy on what happens after the films are made.