The carnival atmosphere that characterized the IFP/New York Market (September 27 to October 4) in the past was absent from this year’s event. Gone were individuals in eye-catching costumes handing out film flyers from the steps of the Angelika Film Center, where more then 90 documentaries screened during the event. In their place was a focused, business-like environment that was well attended by the independent film industry.
Panel discussions attracted a full house. The session called Distribution and the Documentary developed into a frank talk about docs and dollars. Panelist Udy Epstein of Seventh Art Releasing advised filmmakers to consider the video market supplementary, and warned that theatrical runs often cost more money than they generate. ‘It’s safe to assume that for most documentaries, you will never make your costs back,’ he quipped when asked about license fees. Christian Vesper, who acquires docs for the Sundance Channel, urged doc-makers to stop holding out for the perfect deal (‘it’s not out there’), and Cara Mertes, executive producer of P.O.V./American Documentary, revealed that P.O.V. is trying to join doc projects earlier in the production process.
Speakers on the Exploitation or Observation panel briefly dipped into the business side of the issue when Gail Dolgin (Daughter from Danang) relayed how funders had asked her to remove the budget line that allowed her to compensate the film’s subjects for participating in her doc.
Down the street at the Angelika, 60 documentary works-in-progress struggled to stay on their 30-minute-per-film schedule. Few filmmakers reported closing deals at IFP, but many received invitations for further discussions from non-fiction heavyweights such as HBO.
The pay-TV outlet was in high profile during the event, most notably for the panel HBO Case Studies: Paths to Success. During that session, HBO’s Nancy Abraham noted that the channel was currently experimenting with letting certain documentaries have a limited theatrical release before broadcast. ‘We’re hoping to get recognition too,’ she added. For the filmmakers in the audience hoping to work with HBO, Jon Alpert (Afghanistan: From Ground Zero to Ground Zero) advised strategizing with the programmers, such as Abraham, who work below Sheila Nevins, HBO ‘s executive VP of original programming. ‘They will help you get Sheila’s ‘okay,” he said. ‘You cannot discount the personal relationships with people at HBO.’