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Sub-Genre Media Newsletter:
Weekly musings on indie film, media, branded content and related items from Brian Newman.

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From the Archives:Supporting the Indie Film Middle Class, or We (still) need a new AIVF

September 1, 2021

(written Aug 11 and from the archives -2019 - while I wrap up my vacation from social media and the newsletter during August and until Labor Day)

On July 29th, 2021, I spoke at the virtual UFVA conference about the state of distribution post-covid, with filmmaker and professor Kyle Henry moderating. While we started "on topic," we quickly found ourselves talking about the overall state of the marketplace, and how we need to build more support structures for the "indie film middle class" and might also need to think back to the old days for models to build a better future for all of us. Some of my idols/leaders in the field happened to be in the conference "room" and we found ourselves talking a lot about the need for a new AIVF, and a new public media. 

Well, as long term readers know - I've written about these subjects many times in the past. But just about two years ago, in March/April of 2019, I wrote a pair of articles on how we need a new AIVF to support the indie film middle class, and need to work towards a new vision for public media. I think both are relevant now, but after the panel ended, Kyle and I stuck around the zoom/room with Bart Weiss, who was very active in the history of AIVF and talked about how we really do need to build a new AIVF before it's too late. One thing we also agreed on was that it didn't need to be led by three white men, so I think all of us would volunteer to help a more diverse group of filmmakers build what we need. 

I get back from my social media and newsletter writing vacation next week, after Labor Day, and I hope some of us can gather - after this look back through the archives - to talk about building a better future. In the meantime, Enjoy the long weekend.

From March 21, 2019

It’s an amazing time to be a filmmaker and film lover with more places buying films than ever before (and often for record sums), and more places to watch films (and shows) as well. But as I’ve written before, there’s a simultaneous negative trend going on, where it’s getting harder and harder for the majority of filmmakers to get their films picked up and have any chance of finding an audience. In many ways, the indie film sector has split into the high and the low, with no middle to be found (much like our society).
If your film didn’t premiere at a handful of major festivals, many distributors will pass on acquiring your film – not because they’re evil, but because they can’t take a risk when there’s fewer buyers who want these titles. Netflix, for example, had as many as 35,000 titles in its library in 2005 (when it was primarily a DVD service), but it now has just around 4,500 movies and 1,600 TV shows in its library in the US (it varies by country), and a significant portion of each are “originals,” that weren’t licensed as finished films. So as Netflix and other services become more focused on TV, originals and curated content, that means distributors have less places to license these titles and must also get pickier.
It’s a phenomenon that’s not just impacting new American indie films – most platforms don’t want to license older, “library” titles at all, so distributors don’t want them either. I’ve had numerous filmmakers approach me with Award-winning, Sundance premiering, once-popular films that are less than ten years old, but they can’t get anyone to help them keep their films available to the public because that market has collapsed. Many foreign-language titles aren’t licensed here at all – as one leading foreign sales agent from France told me last year – the US market brings him less licensing revenue than Benelux, and he’s almost ready to give up on us (he was slightly joking…I hope).
While it’s easy to get cynical, I don’t blame this on Netflix (or Amazon, or Hulu, or distributors) at all. Netflix has been a boon for many shows, films and creators – especially when it comes to diversity – but it’s not a public service. It’s spending a ton of money to make & license content, and if the market doesn’t support it, that money has to be used elsewhere. Netflix is just doing its job as a market leader that could be dethroned at any time. It has to cut underperformers and re-designate that money to possible winners before it becomes the underperformer itself.
This is a market problem, and while usually these represent opportunities for competitors to exploit, that won’t be the case here – long story short, the market is never going to find a solution that solves the problems of indie films getting to an audience. But it’s a problem that affects everyone in the business – whether you are making films, funding them, distributing them, starring in them, or just watching them.
I’ve been saying for a long time that the indie film sector- especially the nonprofits, film festivals and foundations that support it – will need to solve this problem together. As I contemplated this problem this past week, my mind went back to the beginnings of Netflix entering the streaming business (announced in January, but launched in February, 2007), and something else that happened around that same time – the death of AIVF in June of 2006. I think these two events are intimately related (along with the purchase of YouTube by Google in November, 2006) to our core problem for indies – the death of the “middle class,” and hints at how we solve it as well.
For those of you who don’t know AIVF, it was the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (link has the full history), and it was one of the leading organizations for indie filmmakers in the US. Throughout the 70s, 80s and 90s, AIVF was the main advocacy organization representing independent film – it helped secure funding for indie films, advocated for the NEA’s grants to filmmakers, helped organize the beginnings of ITVS, fought budget cuts to public media, started one of the first magazines for indie film (The Independent) and so much more. Yes, we eventually had organizations like IFP and Sundance, but AIVF was one of the first in the space (so was Women Make Movies), and it was always more focused on advocacy than any of the others.
By the early 2000’s, AIVF was struggling, and I wrote a couple of postsabout its pending and eventual demise, which you can read (along with Eugene Hernandez’s piece for IndieWire linked above), and Jim McKay wrote a nice piece back then as well. As I said then in a piece for IndieWire(note that I didn’t even mention YouTube):
“we have some great new possibilities, such as Google VideoiTunes and Netflix. But these are corporate entities; they are beholden to their shareholders, not to the needs of the independent community. There is no guarantee that they will continue to distribute your media, and none of them want to make sure you get paid fairly for it. Only a place with the public good in mind can serve the needs of independent media artists and their audiences.”
And as I said that same month in my newsletter rather dramatically but presciently, the death of AIVF would mean: “The definition of independent is debated regularly, but could soon just mean one thing: alone.”

Well, that’s exactly where we’ve ended up. In a sense, AIVF was the union for the middle-class filmmaker, and just like in the real world, the decline of the middle-class can be pegged directly to the decline of the unions, and for us – AIVF. It’s not that AIVF would have stopped the market from shaping how Netflix behaves – but that when we lost AIVF, we lost any semblance of a place that can fight to build an alternative for the rest of us. Movements need leaders, and without an AIVF, we’ve had no one to organize the field to create the systems we need.
Yes, we have great organizations that might take up the cause – IFP, Sundance, Impact Partners, IDA, Kartemquin and many great festivals (if I didn’t mention your favorite org, it’s unintentional) – but solving the problems around building a better ecosystem for independent media artists is bigger than any one of their missions and if they haven’t found the time to do it on their own since 2006, it’s not going to happen now (but they’ll collaborate on the answer).
We need a new AIVF, but for the modern era.
I’m not sure what it should look like, but I know we need it, or something like it. I imagine it’s more of a with-profit than a nonprofit, meaning some hybrid of nonprofit activism and services, coupled with some for-profit, entrepreneurial activities.
It would enable us to re-envision what a new home for truly indie films would look like – and corral the miscellaneous support groups, festivals, producers, services and platforms to help make it a reality. It would advocate for this need with foundations and other funders, who are currently too enamored with putting their logo on films (via production-funding) to think about the bigger problems of distribution and audience-building. It would advocate at the government level for a new generation of public media, for funding to make this a reality, and for public support (which is hard when people think they have access to everything already). It would take the lead on projects like bringing more transparency to the business, or demanding more diversity behind the camera, or making sure that Spielberg doesn’t hurt indies when he tries to kill Netflix.
These are just a few of the myriad needs we have that no one else is fully addressing. Advocacy and service organizations may not be sexy anymore, but I think the past 13 or so years have proven they’re needed more than ever. I may be proposing something too quixotic, but if anyone else agrees, maybe we can get a movement started.

No news summaries/commentaries this week, while I'm on vacation, but I'll be back with updates after Labor Day.
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