Written by Erin Trahan | Posted by: Anonymous
After more than 30 years of service to the independent film community and nearly a year of struggle to reorganize and raise emergency funds, the Association of Independent Video & Filmmakers (AIVF) announced its closure on July 26. The email blast was one of several updates sent to members from the board of directors regarding the organization’s instability. Remaining board members took proposals to transition The Independent, the organization’s national monthly magazine, to new management and selected Independent Media Publications.
AIVF was founded in 1975 by a small group of dedicated filmmakers working outside of public television and Hollywood. They wanted to leverage the collective voice of a largely isolated community and create a venue for sharing ideas and resources. As media activism blossomed and cheaper, more accessible technologies emerged, AIVF membership grew beyond New York, hovering around 5,000 in recent years. Among its achievements are helping to establish ITVS and its peer review process for distributing funds and publishing The Independent Film & Video Monthly to bridge the coasts and report on the full range of film genres and formats.
Cheryl Eagan-Donovan, an independent filmmaker from Boston, joined AIVF in the 1990s in tandem with her BFVF membership. Both organizations positively influenced her filmmaking, and to her disappointment, both organizations have closed. She recalls that an AIVF staff member gave her personal recommendations for how to schedule and promote a screening in New York and that BFVF staff members became lifelong friends. "Personal support makes these organizations unique," she says. Earlier this year she met top PBS programmers as part of AIVF’s annual mentor program. "I wish it could continue," she says.
Other New England filmmakers and AIVF members expressed frustration and sadness in response to the closure, but understand the struggle to stay afloat. "It has always been working against the tide," says Boston-based filmmaker and past AIVF president Robb Moss. He praises AIVF for keeping a "laser-like focus on what independent filmmakers need to survive," without sacrificing its "unfettered independent voice." He recalls the organization’s ongoing debate about the appropriateness of corporate sponsors and the unwillingness to compromise its impartiality, especially for the magazine. Yet, as someone who balances making a living with making art, he observes, "Independent filmmakers pay for their independence by being broke."
In this way AIVF mirrored its members’ struggle to coexist both inside and outside traditional funding systems. The board’s public statement in January 2006 warned that a "serious crisis in funding" made the likelihood of a forced shutdown "imminent unless significant changes were made."
There were other times of financial crisis, says current board member Bart Weiss, but the difference here was "how soon we knew about it and what we were able to accomplish." Weiss, director of the Dallas Video Festival, has served the board on and off since the early 1980s and will continue through the transition. He says that in the past, the executive director saw difficulties on the horizon and opted to eliminate or consolidate staff positions. But in this case, bad financial reporting made it "hard for the board to get a sense of control" over the budget, which led to "unsustainable" decisions like keeping staff on part-time.
"It took several years of financial crisis for AIVF to come to this sad end," says Michele Meek, former AIVF board member and founder and editor of NewEnglandFilm.com. Meek cut her board tenure short in the spring of 2005 after witnessing an increasingly bleak financial situation that was being overlooked. "I think the attitude was — AIVF had come through worse crises than this and survived. People couldn’t really accept how bad the situation was," she says.
It is natural for organizations to downplay crisis, says Elspeth Revere, director of the general program for The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which is why she thinks an organization has to make a calculated decision about when and how to make their situation public. The MacArthur Foundation is one of the leading private supporters of independent media in the United States. It has provided approximately $800,000 in grants to AIVF since 1987. Its most recent grant to AIVF was to be awarded in three installments of $40,000 from 2005 to 2007.
"There was a leadership change and the new executive director was very open with us about a number of substantial obstacles they were facing," says Revere of the last grant. She notes that when a nonprofit makes their struggle known, some funders become less willing to take the risk. "We hoped that by continuing our support we could help them work out their problems," says Revere.
Though The MacArthur Foundation has no formal method for assessing the lessons learned after a longtime grantee shuts down, Revere underscores the value of such a process. She points to the July 2006 retrospective issue of The Independent as a positive exercise in finding closure and meaning. "What caused this organization to be founded?" and "How will these needs be met in the future?" are the questions she suggests for those still committed to AIVF’s mission.
"What I wonder is what’s going on in the greater economy?" asks Susi Walsh, in regard to the fragile welfare of media arts centers nationwide. As the executive director of Center for Independent Documentary (CID), Walsh says she constantly asks "How is CID relevant?" She looks to the community CID serves for the answers and has determined that one thing is clear: Filmmakers and audiences are changing their habits. "Perhaps the changes in the field are so rapid that the more flexible you are, the more responsive you can be," she says.
In the wake of the closure of BFVF, the instability of municipal and state film agencies, and now the end of operations for AIVF, there are a handful of places where Massachusetts’s filmmakers can turn for support. CID will continue to host free regional salons beyond its partnership with AIVF and recently partnered with five other media organizations to form the Alliance for Independent Motion Media (AIMM). Three AIMM organizations are represented in the newly formed Massachusetts Production Coalition in an effort to grow the production industry. Clusters of formal and informal groups that serve niche geographic, artistic, or social populations exist throughout New England.
Eagan-Donovan recently joined the board of Women in Film & Video/New England partly in response to AIVF’s closure. She would like to see WIFV/NE reach out and fill some of the gaps. "It comes down to building working relationships with other professionals, that’s the most important service organizations like BFVF, AIVF and WIFV/NE provide." She says that WIFV/NE is offering a discount to AIVF members. Similarly, in support of its members, the AIVF board secured limited benefits to its members with Film Arts Foundation and IFP. Independent Media Publications is in process of obtaining official 501(c)(3) status in order to re-launch the print publication, archival records and online resources of The Independent Film & Video Monthly. AIVF members at the time of close will receive a free subscription for one year and other outreach is planned to reconnect with The Independent’s readers.
As for reinvigorating a national organization that helps independent filmmakers survive, early AIVF board member Robert Richter recalls to The Independent: As the triumph of getting ITVS off the ground faded in memory, "AIVF lost members and financial survival became central to AIVF’s agenda. We used to fantasize that if only we had another crusade, AIVF would come out fighting and even stronger."
Also see an article about the 2004 demise of BFVF.
Local organizations mentioned in this article: AIVF (www.aivf.org), AIMM (www.motionmedia.org), BFVF (www.befva.org), CID (www.documentaries.org) WIFV/NE (www.wifvne.org). The Independent magazine is currently being transferred to Independent Media Publications (www.in-de-pen-dent.org). Also see an article about the 2004 demise of BFVF.