Byrd, Michelle 1965–
Michelle Byrd 1965–
Film industry association executive
Michelle Byrd is not an actress or a screenwriter. In fact, neither she nor anyone else in her family has previously been involved in the world of film. And yet, in an artistic world so often controlled by big money, big names, and big movie production companies, Michelle Byrd plays a big role: she is the executive director of the Independent Feature Project, the largest non-profit association of independent directors, producers, screenwriters, distributors, and other film industry professionals dedicated to promoting independent films and encouraging creativity and diversity in film.
Byrd was born in 1965 in Brooklyn and later moved with her family to Westchester, New York. For a variety of personal reasons, she did not want to attend college far from home and thus decided to enroll at Fairfield University, a Jesuit university in Connecticut. While she had grown up in predominantly white neighborhoods, she nonetheless felt out of place at this heavily Italian and Irish Catholic school. In her mind, her interests, already focused on the arts, diverged too greatly from those of her peers.
Despite the progressive, arts-focused curriculum of her high school, Byrd had never heard of independent films nor seen a foreign-language film before she entered college. While at Fairfield she took a class entitled “New German Cinema.” As she claimed, “This class opened my eyes to the fact that the world is larger than the old movies I watched on television as a kid or whatever was current in the movie theater.” Through her exposure in this class, Byrd developed a real interest in foreign-language films. The art house cinema in nearby South Norwalk showed foreign films along with such independent films as Stop Making Sense, Married to the Mob, and She’s Got to Have It. Even though unhappy at school, these films touched and inspired Byrd.
When she graduated from Fairfield in 1987 with a degree in English and began to plan her future, Byrd did not forget her class on German cinema or the evenings she spent in the theater in South Norwalk. Immediately after graduation, she found a job in publishing as an editorial assistant in the children’s book division of Scholastic, Inc. While working on trade paperbacks, writing copy, and covering unsolicited materials, she began to explore job possibilities in the film industry.
After several years at Scholastic and still struggling to determine her professional focus, Byrd considered moving from children’s to adult magazine publishing. While exploring options with various magazines and doing free-lance copyediting, she stumbled across Off Hollywood Report, a publication of the Independent Feature Project (IFP). She quickly made the connection with her time at the South Norwalk movie house and began volunteering as a proofreader and copyeditor for the
At a Glance…
Born 1965 in Brooklyn. Education: BA, Fairfield University.
Career: Editorial assistant, Scholastic, Inc., 1987-90; grant writer, Natural Resources Defense Council, 1990-91; deputy drector, Independent Feature Project, 1994-97, eecutive director, 1997-.
Member: New York Women in Film and Television; Film Society of Lincoln Center; Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers; National Society of Fund-raising.
Addresses: Independent Feature Project, 104 West 29th Street, 12th Floor, New York, NY 10001-5310.
magazine while still employed by Scholastic.
When Byrd first joined the IFP, it was still a relatively small organization. It was born in 1979 as a result of a national organizing conference of filmmakers in conjunction with the New York Film Festival. The organization was originally founded to “produce a small sidebar program of American independent films during the New York Film Festival (then focused mainly on European films.” Since its inception, the IFP has grown in the size and breadth of its programming. It now acts as a liaison between the business and artistic communities, promoting the best in independent films and enabling the films to reach the audiences they deserve both domestically and internationally. As stated in its promotional materials, the IFP rests “on the belief that a truly vital American cinema must include the personal, idiosyncratic, sometimes controversial voices of filmmakers working outside the established system.”
As she continued to volunteer for Off Hollywood Report, Byrd realized that finding a paying job in the film industry would not be easy; most jobs required an initial two to three months of non-paid work. On her own financially after college, she could not afford this situation. Thus, she continued to volunteer for IFP, taking vacation time to participate in its Independent Feature Film Market (IFFM). Concurrently, she further broadened her exposure to the film industry by working as a production assistant for an independent film. Through this experience, she determined that she did not have the personality for the production side of the business and all of its emotional and physical demands but continued to remain active with IFP.
Eager to leave the low-paying market of children’s publishing and still unable to find a financially-viable position in the world of film, Byrd made a complete break and in 1990 joined the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental organization, as a foundation grant writer. While on the surface this move may seem to be a divergent path, it did provide Byrd with valuable work experience in a non-profit environment. While still at the Natural Resources Defense Council, Byrd was offered a position as Ernest Dickerson’s camera assistant for Jungle Fever. Much to her disappointment, Byrd had to refuse the position, for it was nonpaying. This opportunity, though, compelled her to recommit herself to finding a way into film.
In 1991, during the course of her job hunt, Byrd found an advertisement in Variety Magazine for an entry-level position at IFP. Michelle arrived for the interview—and has been there ever since. Initially, she envisioned staying with IFP for one year, for she did not perceive it to be a career move but instead simply a paying job in film. At the time, IFP had only two other year-round full-time employees: the executive director and the program director. The marketing director worked full-time for only eight months each year. All other employees were independent contractors.
IFP proved ideal for Byrd. At the onset, the organization provided her with a superb vantage point for understanding the inner workings of the film industry. The job enabled her to meet filmmakers, writers, and those involved in production, distribution, sales, and festival programming. Still not knowing exactly what she wanted to do, Byrd came to realize that she had landed in the perfect place.
Byrd’s entry into IFP coincided with the organization’s gaining increased financial stability and with the development of more extensive programming. At first, the IFFM, which emerged from IFP’s first presentation of 15 American independent films at the 1979 New York Film Festival, stood as IFP’s primary program. The IFFM remains to date to be the largest project in which IFP is involved. Through the Film Market, IFP initially sought to attract the attention of the film industry, for at that time there was no formal distribution and exhibition mechanism for independent film producers. As Byrd described it, “What our market does is level the playing field.”
As detailed in IFP’s own materials, the IFFM has emerged as the premier Market for emerging American independent talent, now annually previewing over four hundred new works. The IFFM also educates 800 filmmakers and screenwriters in all aspects of the film industry and publishes a development guide of projects in progress for the industry. It attracts buyers from around the world to view feature and short films, works-in-progress, and scripts seeking financing. It further gives filmmakers an opportunity to have festival directors examine their work and to make important business connections.
In essence, the IFFM ensures that, after hours of work, films are actually seen. Says Byrd, “The Market has become for numerous filmmakers that stamp which helps legitimize filmmaking as a viable career option.” In the end, in Byrd’s mind, the Marketplace “lets people discover things for themselves … It’s a convergence of all these different people with all their different needs that creates a kind of magic.” The Brothers McMullen, El Norte, Metropolitan, Reservoir Dogs, Roger & Me, and Stand and Deliver are just some of the films which have been showcased at IFFM.
The growing consumer interest in independent films certainly catalyzed the broadening of the IFP’s mission to include year-round programming in addition to the annual IFFM. Films like The Brothers McMullen proved that movies could be made successfully by filmmakers without film school degrees. In Byrd’s words, “You could just be a guy doing films in New Jersey.” Moreover, as the tools of the trade have become increasingly accessible to the general public and as the industry maintains its aura of glamour, so has the number of films produced risen—and thus the need for an expanded IFP. Having viewed IFP as an initial stepping stone, Byrd suddenly found herself in the middle of its growth. By 1994 she was the deputy director, and in 1997 she assumed the position of executive director.
Byrd’s objectives with the project have evolved as her role with the organization has grown. As deputy director, she oversaw year-round programming, managed daily operations, and developed and implemented new programs and services. She was also instrumental in launching No Borders, an international co-production minimarket. An outgrowth of IFP’s involvement in international festivals, No Borders selects films primarily at script stage which have obtained at least 30% of the required financing. Explained Byrd in a film festival news release, “The filmmaker or producer needs to have a track-record and an ability to attract international co-financing.” Through No Borders, IFP then helps to find contacts for international partners. Sundance Film Institute, Filmstiftung Nordrheim-Westfalen, and the CineMart of International Film Festival Rotterdam are No Borders’ partners who track and suggest projects for this Market.
Under Byrd’s guidance, the IFP’s reach is extensive. Not only does it promote independent films through numerous screenings, but it also seeks to assist filmmakers through programs focused on consultations with media and entertainment experts, a professional skills database, newsletters, and the coordination of panels, seminars, and receptions at film festivals worldwide. It also helps to promote relationships between American filmmakers and potential partners both domestically and overseas. Byrd has also overseen a tremendous growth in membership. Together with IFP/West in Los Angeles, IFP/North in Minneapolis, IFP/Midwest in Chicago, and IFP/South in Miami, the organization in 1998 includes nearly ten thousand members.
While obviously pleased with the continued growth in popularity of independent films, Byrd cautioned that the IFP cannot become static. In her mind, while there are increasingly more people making movies, the local theaters are not necessarily showing a wider range of films. Increasingly, what were once considered art house films are now perceived as more mainstream. At the same time, those films which, she explained, “require slower release, do not have overt marketing handles, or do not speak to a niche audience” have few viable screening venues. Byrd’s goal with IFP, then, is to position the organization so that it ensures a place for as wide a range of voices as possible. One must remember, Byrd pointed out, that “independent film is not unique in that it is independent. It is the independent voices which are unique, and the IFP must ensure that these films are picked up for distribution” before they slip through the cracks.
Towards this end, Byrd has focused on expanding the scope of IFP beyond the artistic community to include the general public as well. Under her guidance, IFP will promote an audience development campaign for independent films. She has also established gatherings such as Director’s Take and the monthly series, Independents Night, which enable film enthusiasts to attend a variety of screening events. During the Independents Night series, filmmakers interact directly with the public in order to gain an understanding of how an audience responds to a particular work. Without the onus of a large advertising and marketing budget which demands revenus from large turnouts on opening weekends, IFP has the flexibility to preview arty, obscure films as well as larger, more mainstream ones. IFP itself thus embodies Byrd’s mission.
Having initially committed herself to one year at IFP and declaring that IFP was not a career move, Byrd now finds herself in her seventh year there. “I guess I should say this is a career now,” Byrd laughed. She has signed a contract to remain with IFP through 1999. Life in the non-profit world, she has learned, is draining, and she cannot predict where she will be beyond her contract date. But for now she remains committed to IFP and to ensuring that ever more people hear the voices on the fringe.
Variety, March 31–April 6, 1997, pp. 9, 12; February 9, 1998, p. 28.
Film Festivals Server, Berlin News.
Independent Feature Project Promotional Brochure.
Independent Feature Project Web Site.
Independent Film Channel Online Interview.
—Lisa S. Weitzman
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