Once the feisty advocate for indies, AIVF fades to black

By Karen Everhart

The Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers, a 30-year-old group that coordinated activism and provided networking and training for independent filmmakers, shuttered its offices and shut down operations in late June.

The Manhattan-based association told members in March that it faced a financial crisis, but an emergency fundraising appeal didn’t generate enough contributions to maintain operations. The AIVF Board is looking for another group to take over publication of The Independent, AIVF’s monthly magazine.

Although the board considered a scenario of eventually resuming operations, it’s unlikely that the association will revive, said Bart Weiss, organizer of the Dallas Video Festival and board president. “I wish it could, but I don’t see how it could happen,” he said. “It would take someone with real energy.”

AIVF has struggled with financial problems and staff turnover over the last several years, and as its problems worsened it was unable to recruit and retain board members, according to Weiss. In February, the board retained a consultant to stabilize the organization, but it was apparently beyond repair.

“After working with the board and staff for a few weeks, we all quickly learned how deeply troubled the organization really was,” wrote Lina Srivastava, the consulting interim executive director, in The Independent this month. “Its operational systems, accounting and financial support and technological capacity were all outdated and barely functioning.” The latest and perhaps last issue of the magazine celebrated AIVF’s legacy but offered few details about its troubles or the prospects for its future.

Weiss, AIVF’s longest serving board member, said he didn’t know the size of its budget. The Foundation for Independent Video and Film, which raised funds for AIVF, reported revenues above $950,000 for fiscal 2004 on tax forms. The foundation reported a $189,000 surplus that year.

Founded in 1974, AIVF brought together indies interested in social activism and public media. It lobbied on behalf of public funding for public broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts and challenged public broadcasters and other agencies to commit more funding to independent work.

Under Larry Sapadin’s leadership in the mid-1980s, AIVF and a coalition of media activists persuaded Congress to mandate CPB funding of a separate organization to assist independent producers for public TV. The legislative victory, which led to creation of the Independent Television Service in 1989, was sweet, but cuts in federal arts funding later eroded AIVF’s own funding.

In 1989, the National Endowment for the Arts abruptly ended its grant for AIVF’s Short Film Showcase, a competition and theatrical distribution program for independent producers. “When that went away without warning, it was the beginning of the long, slow slide and was the harbinger of things to come,” said Patricia Thomson, who ran the film program and edited The Independent from 1991 to 2001.

“There were a lot of administrative problems later on, and I don’t want to underplay those, but AIVF really needed to reinvent itself for a new time and age, and it didn’t do that,” Thomson said.

“When you look at its beginnings in the ’70s and ’80s, there was no HBO or P.O.V., ITVS, IFC or Sundance Channel. There were no theatrical possibilities for documentaries,” Thomson said. “It was a very different universe.” Indie filmmakers worked in a nonprofit world and sought to fund and distribute their work through public television.

“The need for an organization like AIVF diminished over time,” Thomson said. “Its importance in the field lessened for younger filmmakers who came of age when these things did exist.”

“The only alternative was ratcheting up the organization as a pure digital play, which I think, in many ways, was antithetical to the . . . notion of human contact that drove AIVF,” said independent producer and screenwriter James Schamus in The Independent. “The idea that people actually mingle was still part of the culture of the organization but, given all these circumstances, this really hampered it.”  Activism was also an important part of the culture, but it never became a central focus of the organization, he said.

As AIVF’s role in establishing ITVS faded from memory, the organization lost members, and “financial survival became central to AIVF’s agenda,” documentary filmmaker Robert Richter, who was AIVF Board president in the early 1980s, told The Independent. “We used to fantasize that if only we had another crusade, AIVF would come out fighting and even stronger.”

“I still feel there’s a real need for what AIVF does,” Weiss said. “It provides support for work that is more socially conscious; other organizations support people who are independents until someone buys them off. That’s always been a problem — because we don’t deal with people who are celebrities.”

AIVF’s orientation — toward grassroots issues and content creation — made it “hard to raise money,” Weiss said. “I believe the organization could have survived if we had bodies to do the work, but we started losing staff and board members, and there was no one to do the heavy lifting.”

EARLIER STORY

AIVF’s Larry Sapadin was a major figure in the campaign for CPB funding of indies that led to the creation of ITFS. More on independents.

RELATED LINKS

AIVF’s website declares that it shut its offices in June 2006, ends health insurance coverage for members in December.

AIVF fell apart because its job was too big for its resources, and it didn’t fully grasp either the new digital media or the growing popular success of some indie films, writes filmmaker and onetime board member Jim McKay on Indiewire.

AIVF is only one of several mediamaker groups with financial problems, the Village Voice reported in April.

Independent Feature Project, with 9,000 members, is oriented more toward feature-length films.

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