Q&A: The New School’s Michelle Materre talks film funding during the COVID-19 crisis

As the COVID-19 pandemic tightens its grip on the economy, filmmakers seeking funding could face shrinking budgets and even fewer opportunities in the year ahead. The outlook isn’t all grim, though. ...
May 22, 2020

As the COVID-19 pandemic tightens its grip on the economy, filmmakers seeking funding could face shrinking budgets and even fewer opportunities in the year ahead.

The outlook isn’t all grim, though. Michelle Materre (pictured), an associate professor of media studies and film at New York-based university The New School, where she has taught since 2001, says filmmakers can build their business acumen as traditional funding venues — such as film festivals — change shape in the coming months.

“We need to start claiming that space more and commanding more direct income from our endeavors, from our product,” she says. “I know I’m an optimist, I can’t help it. But I’m turning this whole thing around and saying this is actually going to be good for us, this is going to show the broadcasters, the studio heads, the Academy people — we don’t really need you, we can make money on our own, we can get visibility on our own, we can promote our own work ourselves, and so you all need to be more cognizant of what you are bringing to the table.”

Materre — whose 30 years of industry experience spans film production, writing, arts administration, distribution and marketing — also serves as the director of the Media Management Masters program for the university’s media studies department.

A current member of the board of directors of Women Make Movies, a distributor of films by and about women, Materre is also the programmer, curator and producer of the long-running Creatively Speaking Curated Film Series, which highlights independent films by and about women and people of color.

Though the pandemic may bring about a paradigm shift for the filmmakers — creating new challenges in an already competitive space –  funding agencies could adjust their business models for the better as the industry embraces a new reality.

“In the United States, our options aren’t very robust considering what other countries do for filmmakers like Canada, like the UK, like France. As a result, I think that we do need to perhaps broaden our perspectives as funders in the U.S. and think about things that have more of a global perspective,” she says.

Realscreen talked with Materre about the role of film festivals, how funding could shift over the year and what filmmakers can do now to be prepared.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity

Some film festivals have been canceled, some have moved online. Do you foresee this aspect of going digital creating more challenges for filmmakers looking to secure funding?

Michelle Materre: I think it actually created advantages in the long run.

I’ve always thought that there are way too many film festivals, and I’ve always thought the festival model is not a sustainable one. I will always wonder when funders and sponsors are going to catch up with that.

I also teach a class in film distribution and I always tell my students, ‘You have to first know what you want the outcome of your project to be, and who your audience is.’

If this is your first film and the purpose of you getting it out to the world is to become known as an amazing filmmaker, then the online thing may be fine for you because chances are more people will see it than in an in-person festival, right? And the chances of you getting in are actually even more possible…  It’s still going to be competitive, but people are going to be very desperate for content.

A lot of really good work gets overlooked in the regular festival environment because they may have pre-screeners who are basically college students themselves or just out of college and not really exposed to a variety of different kinds of work, or don’t know how to overlook some minor technical issues in favor of a good story… That has always been another issue of mine with festivals, because some of the really good stuff can never get to the top.

Are projects being funded right now, or is the money just not available?

MM: I think that deadlines that were in place already –  grant deadlines or fellowships or any of those things — are going forward. I think people are still accepting applications and what not. However, what happens after this period can be a real problem, not only because of the lack of funds but because of the stock market.

A lot of these foundations, their income is all based on stock markets, and the stock market’s in the toilet. So they’re not going to have so much money to give away. They are going to probably pull back and reduce how much money they are going to offer. We may not feel the effects of this for six to eight months or 12 months, but I do think going forward it is going to have an impact.

How are flaws in the process of securing funding magnified right now?

MM: Filmmakers have always been considered artists at the low end of the totem pole when it comes to getting paid. For some reason, everybody always acts like filmmakers are supposed to only be grateful for exposure.

But in actuality, filmmaking is like the trifecta in terms of art. It’s having the creative sensibility, it’s having the technical sensibilities and it’s a business. I should say it’s likely the quadfecta, because it’s also working with a team of people. It’s not a solitary art. Because there are those four aspects of filmmaking, we should actually be getting paid more for what we do than less.

What kinds of things can filmmakers be doing right now to get through this period?

MM: Getting their infrastructure together. What I mean by that is, setting up your film as a business, making sure that you are cultivating an audience, getting your databases together, collecting those emails, in addition to making sure your social media is in order.

I’m also finding a lot that people, even some experienced filmmakers, don’t really protect themselves by having corporations set up or LLCs set up for their films and their film production businesses. I think it’s a good time to take stock of where you are and what you don’t have and make sure that all that is in place. It’s a moment where you can take a deep breath and not be rushing forward to finish a project… and get prepared for the next wave, however that emerges.

Anything else you’d like to add?

MM: I think the [streaming platforms] that are going to be the most beneficial are the ones that can figure out how to make sure filmmakers get paid, somehow or another, and there is a way to do it… I think that is going to be the next frontier. And, being very cognizant of all the positives, advantages and disadvantages of all the various platforms that are out there — because there is like a gazillion of them — and knowing who you want to reach and how you want to get there is important.

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