Film Independent Forum 2013: Interview with Film Independent President Josh Welsh

The ninth edition of the Film Independent Forum, put on by Los Angeles-based nonprofit Film Independent, took place October 25-27, 2013 at the Director’s Guild of America. MovieMaker not only got to attend, we also got to speak with Josh Welsh, Film Independent president himself, on the successes of both the Forum and his superb organization.

A three-day program of panels, networking lunches, and office-hours-come-speed-dating mentorship sessions known as IndieLink, Film Independent Forum kicked off this year with an opening night screening of Jean-Marc Vallée’s The Dallas Buyers Club. Inspiring and educational in equal measure, the Forum feels like a really good (albeit really short) college course—the kind for which you don’t mind waking up early to get a front-row lecture hall seat. This year’s edition brought together a top-quality line-up of panelists and speakers from filmmaking and industry backgrounds, including Ryan Coogler, Lucy Walker, Jill Soloway, Cassian Elwes, Funny or Die’s Mike Farah, Art House Convergence’s Russell Collins, Fox Searchlight’s Matthew Greenfield, and executives from Tugg, Indiegogo and Slated.com. Topics covered at the panels ranged from “What’s Behind a Great Marketing Campaign,” to “There’s an App for That: Handheld Content,” and “U-Finance: Crowdfunding Comes of Age.”

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Keynote Address speaker Ava DuVernay on Sunday, October 27, 2013.

The customary Keynote Addresses are the Forum’s most news-y elements, though, and this year’s words from Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer at Netflix, and Ava DuVernay, director of Middle of Nowhere and founder of African-American cinema platform AFFRM, were satisfyingly challenging. As the Saturday morning opener, Sarandos’ speech on Netflix’s tumultuous history, new production initiatives (i.e. features), and big data development strategies was controversial (to prove my point, as of this writing the YouTube video of his address is split almost evenly in likes and dislikes. How’s that for big data?). His metaphor about the harm that the current theatrical release model does to the industry, with films forced to be “these cold spectacles that have to be sold around the world in order to recoup these huge marketing and production budgets,” has already made its way around some corners of the internet. What MovieMaker also found interesting was Sarandos’ response to a query about Netflix’s licensing fee and its potentially detrimental effect on the VOD life of an independent film (a topic we discussed in last issue’s annual VOD guide). He countered with the benefits of “a smaller but guaranteed return on investment – like every other  business” in a market beleaguered by possible flops. One imagines that some moviemakers might not agree with this cautious perspective. DuVernay, on the other hand, went the crowd-pleasing route on Sunday morning with her address, building for 40 minutes an atmosphere of rousing encouragement with a speech that rallied filmmakers to turn their desperation (which, she maintained, can be smelled across a room) into passion. Look inwards to what you already have, she cried, instead of thinking constantly about how to get what you don’t have. Her genuinely concerned warmth and emotional candidness drew cheers and applause.

After the action-packed weekend closed, Film Independent President Josh Welsh took some time to talk with MovieMaker about the Forum’s origins nine years ago, how the event fits into the rest of Film Independent’s programming, and where the growing organization is headed next.

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Welsh and Director of Film Education/Forum head honcho, Maria Bozzi.

Kelly Leow, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): This was the ninth year of the Film Independent Forum. What were its beginnings like?

JW: The forum is a program that’s about empowering the filmmaker with information directly from other filmmakers as well as relevant industry professionals. We decided to do it in the fall because there are a lot of filmmakers in post-production at this time and they are hoping to premiere their films in the new year. There’s a whole crop of festivals that kick-off in January. Of course, we don’t know who in the audience is going to be premiering in early 2014, and the filmmakers don’t know either. For those who are lucky enough to get into film festivals where they have the chance of selling their film, we want to Forum to provide them with the tools so that they can safely navigate that whole process and not be taken advantage of, and take control of their film’s destiny and have a good experience. That was the core audience we were going after.

Over the years, the program has broadened a bit. When we started it, we only had filmmakers talking to filmmakers. Now we have relevant industry professionals come to talk about the process as well. We also broadened it not just on film sales but to be on film financing and production.

MM: Right. A lot of the panels that I attended were not so much post-production- and distribution-based but on financing and development.

JW: I would say that’s fully half of it now, and a lot of the people attending the forums are in all phases of development and post-production. The audience is very much working filmmakers who are getting their films made and out to the world.

MM: Programming the forum must be very much like putting on a magazine, in terms of shaping the current conversation in the industry. Do you agree with this comparison?

JW: I do, very much. When we start programming the forum, we’re looking at where we are in the year, what the interesting trends in independent filmmaking are. What are the different things this year that we need to address? What’s the overall narrative that we want to convey here? What are the interesting disturbances to the independent film space that we need to acknowledge? I think that is signaled in the Keynote Addresses. Given everything that Netflix is doing today, Ted Sarandos seemed like a great industry keynote. And then Ava DuVernay is just the quintessential self-empowered filmmaker; she just seemed like the perfect filmmaker to deliver this keynote.

MM: Her speech was very intimate!

JW: It was so personal and funny. But also, spot on! To tell filmmakers ,“You really need to throw off the coat of desperation. If you’re always asking for help and always presenting yourself as needy, then that’s not going to work.” It’s easier said than done, but to empower yourself and to say “These are the resources that I got, and now I’m going to make a film and be a working filmmaker” is a real shift.

MM: Do you spend the whole year putting the whole forum together? How long does it take?

JW: It’s a period of many months, and it’s Maria Bozzi, our director of education – she and her own team put it together and she has been doing it since the beginning. And this is her creation, and she has done a beautiful job growing this program over the years. She’s working on it full time for months in the lead up to it.

MM: Let’s talk about the theme, the “Content Revolution,” which was about new media and how filmmakers can wrap their heads around a environment that is changing everyday. Correct me if I’m wrong: My impression of Film Independent, at least in its Labs, is that it’s very much focused on feature films.

JW: That’s correct. You make a really good point. Historically, our artist development program has been focused on narrative or documentary feature films. But the filmmakers that we are working with are, more and more, creating content and pursuing work in other format.

MM: There was a gaming panel. There was even one on web comedy.

JW: We had a web panel; we had a panel on “Wisecracking on the Web,” which had really fantastic people from web comedy there. We also had one on creating content for hand-held devices, with Andy Merkin, who works at Mirada Studios, Guillermo Del Toro’s company. There was an filmmaker named Greg Pak. He did a feature a few years ago called Robot Stories, and he’s now doing really interesting stuff for the iPad. It’s very much independent, self-created. It’s content that made for hand-held devices, not standard theatrical or VOD release. That’s where work is. That’s where creative opportunities are. Maria wanted to include that in the Forum this year, and I think we’re going to continue it.

We’re not giving up on features and certainly not giving up on the theatrical experience, but filmmakers and storytellers are looking to work in different kinds of media. What we support is creative independence in visual storytelling – that’s what we care about. Our Labs are still focused on feature programs (and incredible work comes out of them), but in a few years I think we will be having a more robust program to support different content.

MM: And the inclusion of panels like that at a venue like yours certainly helps to legitimize that kind of work.

JW: That is partly our hope: to educate filmmakers who might not know about those opportunities yet, as well as to engage with those talented people who are already doing that kind of work.

MM: Besides the Keynotes, were there any other memorable speakers for you? Did you learn something that you didn’t expect?

JW: One of the panels that I liked was called “Made in LA.” It was case studies of a handful of films that were made in Los Angeles. Film Independent has a real interest in promoting film production in Los Angeles. We’re a national organization, but the bulk of our members are here in Los Angeles, and we really want to support homemade movies. The panel was moderated by Stephanie Allain, with the films Afternoon DelightThe Sessions, and Mamitas. You hear so many stories of runaway productions, of people leaving Los Angeles, but those filmmakers talked about how they did it here at very different budget levels, with the resources of the city. That’s an area Film Independent is going to spend more energy on in addressing in the next year.

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Allain talks to Judi Levine and Ben Lewin of The Sessions.

Another thing I loved at the forum was at the end of the day of Saturday, we did a screening of the works-in-progress from Film Independent’s Documentary Lab, our newest artist development program. Documentarians come to the Lab with a work-in-progress, and over seven weeks, they receive a lot of creative feedback. It’s really focused on giving creative notes on a rough cut to help the filmmakers finish it. The Lab runs in the spring but every year in the fall we bring the filmmakers who are in that year’s Lab to show up to 10 minutes of their work at the Forum. And the work that they showed this year was beautiful  – incredible films that are going to come out in the festival circuit in the next six months to a year. Being able to share their work with an audience was great. I was excited to see it.

MM: Let’s talk about Film Independent. I’m surprised at how many events you organize every year.

JW: Our membership has taken off in the last year. We are up 30% from last year. Independent film is alive and well. As challenging as it is in the distribution front, filmmakers are getting their films made and doing beautiful work. There’s about 40 in our staff, and we do over, I believe, 250 events throughout the year. Between the festivals, the film program at LACMA, the educational events, and artist development programs – we are doing stuff every week of the year and multiple nights of the week.

MM: You’re taking over L.A. Where do you see Film Independent moving in the future?

JW: Two things I’ll mention: In 2014, we’ll be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Film Festival, and we plan on really making it a big celebration – a broad cultural celebration for the entire city. For the 20th anniversary, we’re really going to blow it out. We look forward to having people back who’ve attended the festival over the past 20 years and really celebrating that. And then in 2015, we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Spirit Awards. It feels like a landmark for us. Independent film has grown up: the Spirit Awards are 30 years old now.

MM: Wow.

JW: I know. I can’t believe it. The mission remains the same: to champion the cause of independent films, to celebrate a community of diversity and film artists creating original and unique work. That’s what we’ve been doing the whole time. To me, it’s such an exciting time for independent film. There are definite challenges on the distribution front. When there’s so much great work, how do you connect with your audience and how do you sustain a career? Honestly, it’s an honor to work at a place like this and to be able to work with brave filmmakers who are taking risks and doing compelling work. It’s very inspiring. MM

Watch Ted Sarandos’ Keynote Address here and Ava DuVernay’s, here. For more information about Film Independent, visit their website.

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