For a Few Dollars More

As technologies evolve and priorities shift, media nonprofits struggle to stay afloat

AIVF also faces its own very specific problems: a board of directors composed of cash-strapped filmmakers and struggling nonprofit heads, an inability to reconcile its New York base and national reach, and a staid reputation that lacks the razzle-dazzle of such organizations as the Austin Film Society, with its partially private Austin Studios and celebrity cheerleaders Richard Linklater, Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Rodriguez.

Many veterans of the field say the most thriving organizations are embracing the "nonprofit and for-profit paradigm," says Karen Helmerson, the director of the Electronic Media and Film Program for the New York State Council of the Arts. "I don't see independent media as a stand-alone anymore," she says. "There has to be a clear for-profit or income-generating component."

New York's 27-year-old Independent Feature Project straddles both worlds, for example, by generating revenue through its annual film market and star-studded Gotham Awards. But as Our Song writer-director and former AIVF board member Jim McKay says, "The very thing that makes IFP solvent is the very thing that AIVF couldn't be because of its mission. AIVF was never supposed to be the mini-studios' best friend." Rather, AIVF should be focusing on minority filmmaking initiatives (like IFP's Project Involve or Tribeca's All Access), argues McKay. "But AIVF never had the money to do it, because it can't do a fundraiser where the people from Miramax will buy a $10,000 table to come see Barbara Hammer receive her award for best lesbian experimental work."

illustration: Shane Harrison

Brian Newman rejects the "for-profit" mandate, calling it "a capitulation to capitalism. People are saying AIVF is only worth doing if it has some commercial success," he says, "but the arts have never been something that we've required that from."

While the nonprofit media entities are expected to modernize and commercialize, says AIVF's Lina Srivastava, "you have these for-profit companies" —such as the distribution divisions of major studios—"coming in who don't have to go to the Ford Foundation and are distributing independent work. But they're not taking care of the independent filmmaker."

Indeed, the terrible irony of AIVF's current crisis, says McKay, "is that there is a greater need in this country for the activist part of AIVF now more than ever." As the major studios shut down new technologies that could help independent artists distribute their films (e.g., Grokster), as government institutions intermix with private companies to limit the availability of public information (e.g., the Smithsonian's recent deal with Showtime to privatize its archives), and as the Senate guts "net neutrality" provisions from a telecommunications bill, "there needs to be an organization that is lobbying Congress," says McKay, "that is dealing with broadband issues, that is shining a spotlight on grassroots organizations."

"We are in the middle of a huge fight for the hearts and minds of our nation," adds Alice Myatt, "and I don't think I'm being hyperbolic. The big picture is too harsh. Not just for filmmakers, but for everyone. The public media—be it NPR, public access, PBS—absolutely everything is being squeezed."

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