Will Pay Cash for Film
Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund Underwrites Independent Film and Video
There's nothing cheap, or simple, or easy, about the craft of independent filmmaking, and the people at the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund know that better than anyone.
Even in a culturally rich environment like Austin, narrative and documentary film- and videomakers often find themselves scrambling at the last minute for the necessary funding to fuel their vision.
Before the culture wars of the mid-1990s, the Houston-based Southwest Alternate Media Project (SWAMP) was there to lend a helping hand to filmmakers in and around Texas, distributing regional re-grants that initially flowed from the NEA itself. SWAMP is still around -- they sponsor the acclaimed PBS series The Territory, among other things -- but beginning in the early Nineties, during the heyday of the Congressional brouhaha surrounding federal funding of works and exhibitions by transgressive artists such as Karen Finley and Robert Mapplethorpe, the NEA curtailed its longtime habit of issuing grants to individual artists and the groups that help fund them, in this case SWAMP.
At the same time, the Austin Film Society, headed by founder/filmmaker Richard Linklater and executive director Katie Cokinos, was entering a fallow period of its own. During the summer of 1995, Linklater and Cokinos got in touch with friend Elizabeth Peters in New York City.
Peters had previously worked with both the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers and the Boston/Film Video Foundation on the New England Regional Fellowships -- essentially an East Coast version of SWAMP -- and together they began brainstorming ways to expand the AFS while at the same time bemoaning the lack of funding available to filmmakers and media artists in the wake of the NEA's charitable breakdown.
Wouldn't it be great, Linklater said, if they could expand the Film Society to create a grant program for Texas filmmakers and use the monies from the exhibitions and other projects as a funding source for the program?
Cokinos and Peters agreed that Linklater's idea was a good one, and quickly set the gears in motion that would end, one year later, with the first annual Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund awards, which officially began in August 1996, with four professional filmmaker panelists distributing $30,000 in grants to 11 Texas filmmakers.
"Rick and Katie got fired up on all these sorts of things that the AFS could do," says Peters. "They decided to look for somebody to run the AFS in a salaried position, and to take a stab at taking the Film Society to a whole new level. That's where I came in."
Peters arrived in Austin to head the TFPF along with friend Jerry Johnson, who took over the daily programming duties. Initially, the process of creating the TFPF came down to three things: funding, creating an application process, and then creating a panel process to select the deserving filmmakers.
Funding first came in the form of an $8,000 net windfall from a benefit screening of local director Robert Rodriguez's From Dusk Till Dawn, which had a gala premiere -- complete with writer/co-star (and virtual Austinite) Quentin Tarantino in attendance. That left roughly $7,000 still to go, however. In time, the projected $15,000 necessary to award the first round of TFPF winners came from outside donations, including significant, 11th-hour infusions from Stephen Dell, brother of Michael, and Don Craven, co-owner of the downtown club the Speakeasy and Linklater's partner in the Austin Film Center. By the end of July 1996, they had doubled the fund; they gave away a grand total of $30,000 in August of that year. Since then, the TFPF -- operating under the aegis of the Austin Film Society, has never looked back. These days, the average number of submissions tops out at a cool 175.
"The idea," says Peters, "was that all of the money that came in would go right back out to filmmakers and that the costs and the burden of administering the program would be absorbed by the Film Society or donated by the panelists. I felt that it was really important that all of the money get to the artists, instead of spending part of it on the program itself."
For the past five years, the TFPF has funded its grants chiefly through an ongoing series of major film premieres, often held at the Paramount Theatre and followed by VIP afterparties. Ticket proceeds are then funneled directly into the Production Fund's coffers. So far, the process has worked remarkably well.
Former TFPF panelists have run the gamut from fringe dwellers like experimental filmmaker Craig Baldwin to indie guru John Pierson, with all manner of creativity in between. Peters strove to select panelists who were working filmmakers not necessarily from Texas, thus enjoying the split incentives of avoiding possible conflicts of interest while, she explains, using the TFPF "as a marketing tool to show the rest of the country how amazing Texas' work was."
Peters has since gone back to New York to act as executive director of the AIVF. Since then, AFS members Anne del Castillo and current TFPF head Elizabeth Sikes have stepped in to take over the fund's directorship.
Regarding the four panelists the Fund selects each year, Castillo, TFPF executive director from 1999-2000, says, "I'm not sure people realize that there's no real criteria for 'winning' a TFPF grant -- the recipients are determined by the panelists alone. Whoever they may be in any given year, they're the only people who determine how they're going to review applications that year. You can see that in the difference between '99 and '00. In 1999, we awarded a total of 30 grants -- the panel was clearly eager to fund as many as they could and encourage new talent. And then in 2000 we only gave out 11, and I think that that panel was a little more critical and looking for a certain degree of professionalism. The bottom line is that you can't lobby the panelists at all. With the TFPF, it's all about the work, not who you know."
And it's not just the grant applicants who stand to benefit from the always eclectic panels, either. During TFPF week, the attending panelists screen and discuss their works at special showings open to both applicants and the public at large.
That said, this year's lineup of panelists (short by one due to illness) may be the best one yet, including as it does David Gordon Green (director of the acclaimed indie film George Washington), Bennett Miller (director of cult-fave doc The Cruise), and animator Joanna Priestley.
The bottom line, of course, rests with the filmmakers who stand to benefit from the Production Fund's largesse. To date, $230,000 has been awarded to 94 independent film and video projects -- everything from George Ratliff's Purgatory County to a documentary on Link Wray by filmmaker Tommy Nix. In between, there have been documentaries, video diaries, experimental video projects, narrative features, and just about any other sort of project you can think of.
Austin filmmaker Cat Candler, whose narrative feature Cicadas won the 2000 Austin Film Festival's Audience Award for Best Undistributed Feature Film, says her $5,000 grant has gone toward paying for her film's color correction process, as well as funding posters, press kits, and marketing tools.
"I had taken out a $5,000 loan to pay for that stuff right before I got the grant," says Candler, "and thank god for that or else I'd still be paying that loan off."
Documentarian Don Howard has been working on a triptych titled Nuclear Family for several years running -- his 1998 TFPF grant of $5,000 was "instrumental in getting later funding from PBS.
"It's truly unique that they're doing this," he says. "It's one thing to show films, as the AFS has done for going on 20 years, but to actually generate that kind of money for filmmakers -- from a nonprofit group like the Film Society, no less -- is almost unprecedented."
With the current Bush administration in the White House, it's unlikely that federally funded media arts programs such as SWAMP will reverse their artists' grants programs and begin doling out the necessary cash once again -- which, of course, makes programs such as TFPF all the more important. Surprisingly, the success of the Fund has not inspired other cities or states to emulate the TFPF. Although well known outside of Texas, thanks in large part to the revolving quartets of panelists brought in each year (who then return to their own communities with renewed inspiration), the TFPF is virtually alone among media arts grant programs.
The Love Fest
"During TFPF week," says Peters, "the panelists bring the same intensity that they have for their own work to the panel review process. They take the submissions that they're seeing from the filmmakers very seriously, and they have a tremendous amount of respect for each other. There's all this respect flying around in a very intense creative environment at the height of TFPF week. It's really a little love fest sort of thing."