Film Independent’s Dawn Hudson chats with Jennifer Merin

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Film Indpendent‘s Dawn Hudson, recently named by THR as one of Hollywood’s 100 most influential women, takes time from prepping for the Independent Spirit Awards (Feb 24) to talk accomplishments and goals.

MERIN: I know you’re enormously busy preparing for the Spirit Awards, so thanks for taking this time to chat…

HUDSON: Yes, I’m really slammed right now, so let’s boogie. I loved your piece on Guillermo del Toro, by the way. Del Toro’s brilliant, and you really got him.

MERIN: Thanks. So, to start off, let’s go back to your arrival in Los Angeles– as an actress, if I’m not mistaken.

HUDSON: Yeah. I started as an actress. Well, as an actor.

MERIN: Did you first get involved with IFP– which film independent was back then– as a volunteer?

HUDSON: No, as a part time programming coordinator.

MERIN: What drew you to the organization?

HUDSON: It was a part time job.

MERIN: Plain and simple?

HUDSON: Yeah. It was a part time job, and I could go on auditions. It was a really good situation for me and they were nice and they were nice and all. That’s how I learned about independent film, by starting to work there part time.

MERIN: But what made you become so interested in independent film, per se? Did woking at IFP enable you to audition more through people you met?

HUDSON: Unfortunately no– or I guess that would depend on how we rate my acting talent. But, eventually the job eclipsed my other potential career as an actor. I’ve still acted somewhat throughout– and I think I was hired to be the full time director based on the fact that I did love film and love artists, and knew what it was like to be on set– that was my background, as opposed to being a nonprofit administrator. I knew nothing about running a nonprofit. I knew more about film. I knew that I loved film, I had a passion for film and supporting artists….

MERIN: So you became an advocate, essentially…

HUDSON: Um humm.

MERIN: And advocacy became your new drama?

HUDSON: Well, I’d also been involved in politics all my life, so I think independent film is a combination of art and politics and social change, as well– it’s a very important vehicle for social change….

MERIN: So true….

HUDSON: as well as an art form. There’s an intersection, and it’s probably the area where film is the most crucial or most essential form of media to spread ideas, and impact people. Well, it’s certainly the most dominant form in today’s culture.

MERIN: So, your advocacy took what direction? Helping filmmakers in what way? How did you and do you see yourself in the role of advocate?

HUDSON: The role of film independent? All of those things you said: we cultivate careers of individual artists, we help build audiences for their films, and we work to increase diversity in the film industry. Those are our three categories– all our activities fall into one of those three categories. And, you know….I think it’s the same if you love the visual arts, and you want to expose artists to more people and help artists find an audience for their work, the same thing is true for film. You want to help the artists’ careers. You want people to understand. It’s a little bit of film literacy, as well– you want to get people to understand about new kinds of filmmaking, new kinds of storytelling, new ways of seeing the world. Independent film just doesn’t fit– it’s not that I’m trying to say it doesn’t fit a formula, it just doesn’t fit into preconceived notions about what a film is supposed to be or what a story is supposed to be or what the world is supposed to be. It challenges your preconceived ideas. And, I think that’s what’s really exciting about independent film.

MERIN: So, the one thing that would differentiate independent film from more formulaic studio films is that it doesn’t have a formula?

HUDSON: Yeah, basically…yeah. That’s true. I like that– it‘s really good.

MERIN: Well, you’ve recently been named by The Hollywood Reporter as one of Hollywood’s most influential women– and congratulations for that, by the way– because you’ve grown Film Independent so successfully and the organization has changed so much with you at its helm. Can you point to some of the major changes you’ve made in bringing the organization to where it is now?

HUDSON: Well, thank you. That, of course, is all the big team effort from our board to our staff to the members. I think the challenges are probably similar for any organization, but I’m trying to think what our big challenges are. Well, I would say the major challenge in the United States in working with artists is that there’s very little government support. Even though Film Independent is really lucky and we’re supported by arts agencies in California and nationally. We‘ve got the NEA, the Cultural Affairs Department in Los Angeles, California Film Commission. Every agency supports us and they’ve been as generous as they can be. But there’s just so few funds. The funds are very limited for arts organizations. So if you’re working with artists and with art that’s not necessarily blockbuster art, the challenge is just finding sources of support for that

MERIN: And the solution?

HUDSON: We’ve found a lot of visionary corporate sponsors and really they’re just individuals who just believe in supporting new artists, believe in this community as being the creative heart, and creative force behind film. So they go out on a limb and get their companies to support us, and we’ve been very lucky. We’ve grown exponentially over the years– with support of those corporations and government agencies. But it’s just finding the resources to do all that you want to do to help artists.

MERIN: Have the studios contributed much?

HUDSON: The studios have contributed– through their indie divisions, their art house divisions– to the Independent Spirit Awards and beyond, to the Los Angeles Film Festival. And there are individuals at studios who’ve been really generous with their time and expertise– you know, mentoring young filmmakers and helping them find their way through the maze.

MERIN: What are some of the programs that you personally have put into place to help filmmakers to, as you put it, find their way through the maze and develop their art?

HUDSON: Film independent works on various levels. One level is that we’re a nonexclusive organization, so anyone can pay his very modest annual fee of $95 and join and partake of a lot of programs, most of which are free to our members, and that’s open access. There are other programs we’ve put into place where we select filmmakers based on merit and we pair them with mentors and advisors and give them classes. Those hand-picked filmmakers all fall under the rubric of our Film Independent Fellows. So, there are programs to support the fellows. One is project Involve, which was started in 1993 to support filmmakers from underrepresented communities in the film business– that’s quite a lot of communities. Since 1993, more than 500 filmmakers have gone through that program. We also have filmmakers’ labs, screenwriters’ labs, directors’ labs, producers’ labs– where we select 10 filmmakers for each of those labs each year. And we also give filmmaker grants. You see those at the Spirit Awards– $50,000 awards for someone to watch winner, for the producers’ award and the truer than fiction award. And those are all funded by corporations, by the way– Acura and IFC and Axiom. So, those are $50,000 grants. Target gives away two $10,000 grants at the Los Angeles Film Festival– for narrative and documentary filmmaker. And we also have a program called Fast Track, where we put projects on a fast track, literally, by connecting filmmakers with agents and managers and financiers and distributors and everybody we can to help them move the process along. So there’s a lot of different programs that support filmmakers in different ways, whether it’s to support them as producers, or to support their projects or support them getting access to the industry through Project Involve, and that’s another tier of what we do. And we fund those programs.

MERIN: What would you say have been the actual effects of IFP/LA and, now, Film Independent, programs on the development and growth of independent film?

HUDSON: I think we’ve played a really substantial role in raising awareness of independent film and by supporting filmmakers through our programs, whether they’re winners at the Spirit Awards or seen at the Los Angeles Film Festival or they’ve gone through our labs and learned the ropes of filmmaking and getting more access. So in many incremental and larger ways, we have helped strengthen this movement for independent film, and it’s really gratifying to see. When I started in 1991, independent film was far from being a household name. It was an obscure underground club of devotees…

MERIN: Yeah, and this year, MGM is marketing a new DVD collection of Spirit Awards titles, timed to release with this year’s awards…that’s a good indication of advances made in getting smaller films known to audiences….

HUDSON: Yes, and we’ve been a part of the community that’s helping to advance independent film. I’m not underestimating the importance of Sundance and Miramax– or just Miramax, alone– or any of the other incredibly talented distributors. I think everyone plays a role, as well as the role of journalists writing about these films, the role of marketing experts and publicists getting the word out. I just think the whole industry’s infrastructure for supporting the independent film community has matured. All of that has played a role. But I’ve been very proud of our contributions.

MERIN: To what extent have the Spirit Awards contributed to public awareness of independent film, do you think?

HUDSON: Well, the Spirit Awards and the Los Angeles Film Festival together. The Spirit Awards is 22 years old. But we help at every stage. The awards and festival are one thing, but we go the whole route– there’s our library which has tons of resources for filmmakers at the beginning stages of making a film, then we help them to put it together and get access to the industry, all the way to honoring their films at the Spirit Awards. And, to see Amy Berg’s beautiful film “Deliver Us From Evil” start in the Los Angeles Film Festival and then get an Oscar nomination is incredible. And that you see over and over again. Like Miguel Arteta, with Star Maps, started his first film in our library. People who get direct and indirect support, just using the tools we have at Film Independent, move on to careers. Directors cast films out of our offices. There’s just a lot of resources, a lot of ways, I think, that Film Independent has given them a leg up.

MERIN: Can you clarify the nominating process for the Independent Spirit Awards?

HUDSON: The nominating committee is chosen from industry professionals– filmmakers, film programmers, critics, cinematographers, actors, casting directors. So, there’s a committee this year of 15 who review just the American narrative films, then there’s another committee of seven or eight that does the category of foreign films, and another committee of seven or eight who do documentary films. Then we have other committees that nominate for the filmmaker grants, as well. But the narrative committee reviews all the submitted films, each member of the committee sees 70 to 80 films during a seven week period, and every two weeks we meet and discuss all the films and narrow the group of submitted down to about 50, then you go into a weekend of deliberations where all of the committee members have seen all the films and that committee makes the nominations for the American narrative. Same goes for the documentary, same for the foreign. Then those nominations are announced in November, right after Thanksgiving, and then we do that purposefully very early, because our films, unlike other awards shows where you generally know the films because you’ve seen them in your local theater, our films, a lot of them, never have come to your local theater and, even if they have, the point of the Spirit Awards is to put the spotlight on films we think are very deserving and made by terrific new artists, but that doesn’t mean they’re at all well known, even to industry insiders. So we announce them really early, so the nominees can use the Spirit Awards to market their film, and then also people– the voters– have time to see them the films through the Netflix partnership.

MERIN: How did you develop the Netflix partnership? That’s brilliant….

HUDSON: Yeah. That’s Ted Sarandos over at Netflix. I have to tell you, I’d asked every sponsor for ten years to help get the films into the hands of the voters. Because, as I said, the Spirit Awards is unique in that way– we are not nominating films that people have heard of, and we’re nominating films that the filmmakers don’t even had a DVD much less 12,000 of them to mail out. They can’t afford it. So, the system made it really tough for the small filmmakers, so every sponsor said ooahoooahooo, that’s a big problem, sorry I can’t help you. You know, they said that’s too big a problem for me to solve. And it was a big problem. It was really tough. But Ted Sarandos said, okay, we’ll sponsor the Spirit Awards and we’ll take on this part where we’ll get the DVDs of the films to your members, we’ll create a special site to sign on– it’s just for our members– and then we’ll mail them out.

MERIN: That must have changed things for you….

HUDSON: It was extraordinary, but what was even more extraordinary is that to make it fair, Netflix took on the added burden of creating master DVDs and duplicates for all the films that didn’t already have DVDs. So, in the Spirit Awards, that’s quite a lot of films. So, doing that, it’s amazing, because some of those films don’t even have distribution, but now they’re being seen by a really important group of industry leaders.

MERIN: The people who vote for the Spirit Awards include non-industry members of Film Independent, too. Right?

HUDSON: Yes, if you pay your annual dues, if you’re a film lover or a filmmaker, or you’re a film supporter or industry leader, you can pay your dues and vote. Get the films from Netflix, watch ‘em, vote.

MERIN: Did you have difficulty convincing Ted Sarandos to do this?

HUDSON: No. Once we had…well, part of the job of distribution is to be creative. And with that company, once it was formed, with our very first meeting, it happened. And it wasn’t very difficult at all. It wasn’t a hard sell. We just said we have this idea, can you help us, and he said, yeah. Let’s do it.

MERIN: Meant to be, right?

HUDSON: Yeah. It was pretty great. I don’t know if he knew exactly what he was getting in to, to tell you the truth. But anyway….it’s pretty great.

MERIN: So, I know you have duties calling, but I do want to ask if you’re still thinking of acting at all…because I know that through the years you have done some…

HUDSON: I have, I have. And every once in a while I get called to do something. But I know what it is to be an actor. I know what it is to devote your life to that, and train, and be a dedicated actor, and that is not what I am now. But every once in a while there’s a little small part that casting directors who’ve known me will call me in for– but that’s very much on the sidelines.

MERIN: What do you think the next big hurdle is for Film Independent? And how will you tackle it?

HUDSON: I think that THE hurdle for independent film is distribution, and it’s finding ways of getting those films into the hands of the audience that wants to see them.

MERIN: And the solution is through a Netflix, or how?

HUDSON: It’s still a huge problem. It isn’t resolved, but we’re working on it.

MERIN: I guess the work is never done. Thanks for taking time for this chat.

HUDSON: Thank you…see you at the Spirit Awards.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is also a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).