For a Few Dollars More

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

For the moment, the door is open at New York's Association for Independent Video and Filmmakers. But inside the Hudson Street loft space, the lights are dim, the front desk is empty, and the only person in sight is Lina Srivastava, the organization's interim executive director, who was hired in February to keep the 31-year-old nonprofit on life support. "The ultimate goal is to raise $75,000 to at least do a turnaround," she says, citing necessary upgrades like placing resource materials online for the organization's nearly 5,000 members. And if they don't find the needed donations? "We shut the doors," she says. "It's really that dire."

Founded—like many nonprofit organizations—during the public-funding and activist boom of the 1970s, the AIVF began as a place where indie filmmakers converged, screened work, and eventually doled out grants and campaigned for the creation of the Independent Television Service (ITVS), which went on to produce important documentaries like Black Is . . . Black Ain't, Two Towns of Jaspar, and The Weather Underground. Over the years, filmmakers like Martha Coolidge, Spike Lee, Todd Haynes, Miranda July, and Miguel Arteta have utilized the AIVF as a place to organize, network, and find financing. In a recent issue of AIVF's magazine, The Independent, Spike Lee recalled going to the organization's resource library as an NYU grad student, "trying to find the most obscure grants," he said. "AIVF does a lot of things, but for me, its best purpose was that it helped me find money."

Today, AIVF's resource library, closed until further notice, is the symbol of a bygone print era, and the organization's threatened extinction comes amid a flurry of problems slamming media nonprofits today, from changes in foundation and government support to bigger, slicker, and for-profit competitors. Even more damaging is a larger cultural shift from community media centers to the disparate poles of free-for-all websites and corporate conglomeration. "2006 will be the year the nonprofit media movement dies," Brian Newman, executive director of the arts funder National Video Resources, writes on his blog.

illustration: Shane Harrison

"I was definitely raising the crisis flag," Newman says of his post. "Yes, there are some success stories," he says, citing the Appalachian media collective Appalshop and San Francisco's forward-looking Bay Area Video Coalition. However, he adds, "we've been approached more than twice in the last year by groups in trouble inquiring about possible mergers."

In New York City, for instance, the 37-year-old Film/Video Arts has also found itself in "financial tough times," according to its website, and the Latin American Video Archives closed shop last year. Just last week, the city's Economic Development Corporation announced the formation of a new office devoted specifically to help with the challenges facing arts nonprofits today.

There are also rumblings of trouble at several organizations around the country: Boston's Film/Video Foundation collapsed in 2004, the South Carolina Arts Commission phased out its regional media center last year, and both San Francisco's storied Film Arts Foundation and Atlanta's IMAGE Film and Video Center are without executive directors.

"We're in a transition period," says Jack Walsh, of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, "and during a transition period, you have certain levels of consolidation." While Walsh says certain regional centers show strength, "the tragedy," he says, "is that AIVF is a national organization that is at risk. No one has the national perspective that they've had or the level of advocacy for filmmakers. It would be a major loss if it went under."

Like several sister organizations, AIVF's plight was exacerbated in the late 1990s after the largest funder in the field, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, pulled the plug on operational support. When Jonathan F. Fanton took over the Mac- Arthur Foundation in September 1999, "he had a very different view of grant-making," says Alice Myatt, formerly MacArthur's program officer for media. "I was never replaced by anyone who had a background in media."

But Myatt doesn't blame the philanthropic giants so much as current political conditions. "If one of the biggest threats to our democracy is the consolidation of the media, where do you allocate the limited money you have to make the greatest impact?" she asks. The answer is "media policy," she says, "inside and outside the Beltway."

NVR's Brian Newman agrees. "The foundation world is thinking how can we fund things that get rid of George Bush. They're shifting tactics, funding big social-change projects and studies, but that doesn't give you general operating support."

Rapidly changing new technologies have also impacted the nonprofit media dinosaurs. To be relevant to MySpace-age filmmakers, the '70s-era nonprofits need to adopt the tools of new media. But they can't upgrade without the funds and they can't get the funds without upgrading.

"People are too busy trying to keep the doors open to stop long enough to figure out how to be something else," says Eileen Newman, who was the executive director of Film/Video Arts for six years, until 2004. In the meantime, she adds, "People didn't need to come to us to learn Final Cut Pro. They could teach it to themselves from a book."

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."

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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