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March 3, 2008

The Last Nonprofit?

Who stands to gain what as Renew Media disappears into the Tribeca fold?

(Photo: NYT)

How hard is it out there for film and video nonprofits right now? Hard enough that Renew Media, the New York granting organization (née National Video Resources) that's survived the better part of 20 years as an offshoot of the Rockefeller Foundation, is folding into the Tribeca Film Institute. The news was reported early today by The Hollywood Reporter and indieWIRE, then officially announced a few hours ago in a glossy statement from Tribeca:

As a combined organization, the primary objective is to create one institution dedicated to innovation in film and media, the enrichment of audiences and the promotion of education, understanding and creativity through the media arts. TFI will join the Tribeca Film Festival's quest for a major physical presence and permanent home in lower Manhattan. This new home will include much-needed cultural exhibition space, screening venues, as well as artist and industry workspace. By coupling this physical location with substantial new programs in support of media artists, TFI will help New York maintain its status as the creative capital of the media arts and become an aggressive supporter for such issues and concerns such as housing for filmmakers and artists.

In other words: "People take Renew more seriously than we'll ever be taken alone; Pier 40 here we come!" I'm getting ahead of myself, though. All spin aside ("housing for filmmakers and artists" is about 70 degrees removed from the mandates and intentions of either Tribeca or Renew), and as much as I really want this to work out for everyone involved, consolidation is probably not the solution most observers would have hoped for even as the Rockefeller Foundation pared down its focus on arts and culture. Whether or not this is Rockefeller president Judith Rodin's exit strategy for the type of philanthropy symbolized by Renew, which annually awards around $800,000 in grants, is anyone's guess. However, read what you will into a post to Brian Newman's personal blog Feb. 24, when the Renew Media executive director and incoming TFI CEO praised for-profit tactics among evolving nonprofit organizations:

I think we'll keep seeing more of this, and I for one think that more nonprofits in the media world should be thinking like this. We're the best positioned, as media folks, yet most of us continue the same tired formulas.

And really, this isn't exactly news. While Newman also decried two years ago the "increasing consolidation of the media [and] a very real and silent push by corporations and governments to limit the ability of smaller individuals (such as an independent filmmaker) to create and disseminate their work through the new technologies," he later alluded to Tribeca's role in a long-term fix in a prescient guest post on The Reeler:

What if one of the larger groups in town could add just a few things to their already great programs and become the New York hub for the community? The Tribeca Film Institute, for example, has the power to build a downtown home for filmmakers, and could easily build programs to rival Sundance, but with a focus on the "edginess" of New York.

Which gets us to Pier 40, TFI's proposed "downtown home" for filmmakers -- and the for-profit Tribeca Film Festival -- that has met fierce resistance from neighbors and community groups who aren't too keen on bringing the circus (or at least Cirque du Soleil) to the West Village. But as the trend in this new breed of philanthropy favors projects that can be realized in fewer than five years (even Rodin admitted this to The Times last January), the timetable fits for TFI. Then there are the political interests -- Tribeca partners and power couple Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff donating nearly $10,000 to District 3 representative and City Council speaker Christine Quinn since March 2007, or Rosenthal's $30,000 to Eliot Spitzer before his 2006 election (both according to state campaign finance reports) -- and the festival's deep, for-profit sponsorship channels established with the likes of American Express, General Motors, Target and others. The Institute already has a documentary fund underwritten by Gucci, but that's an exception that generally proves the rule among tight-fisted, contemporary corporate giving. At least for now: Throw in the bottom line- (and image-) conscious downsizing for '08, and all that's missing for the rally ahead is a formidable nonprofit infrastructure people will actually take seriously when mentioned alongside the Sundance Institute and IFP, as indieWIRE's Eugene Hernandez does today.

But is the tenuousness of the whole enterprise -- its very newness after seven years -- too pronounced to mitigate the sticker shock of a proposed $626 million waterfront facility that's already drawn vehement public protest? (Even Related Companies, the deep-pocketed developer behind the proposal, wants a longer term to recoup its investment than the 30-year lease required by law.) You never want to underestimate the powers at Tribeca, but effective immediately, Brian Newman is the smartest guy there, and this consolidation in fact requires a decidedly Newman-esque reconsideration of means across the board. I, you know, love the, um, Chateau De Niro or whatever they're calling Bob's new, extravagant hotel on Greenwich Street, but we can only dream what could have been in that 75,000 square-foot space (the proposed Pier 40 multiplex is only 60,000 square feet). Perhaps there are a few dozen windowless rooms to provide "housing for filmmakers and artists"?

Maybe I'm being reductive or even unfair, but no one can accuse me of not supporting the festival or its filmmakers over the years, and for better or worse history -- especially institutional history -- speaks for itself. Which is why, despite a landscape shift as jarring as it was foreseeable, I guess I'm optimistic overall when considering who's involved. Anyway, if the media nonprofit as we knew it is officially dead, then we're better off celebrating its spirit than picking apart its corpse. I just hope that's the inheritance being mulled at Tribeca, which needs the boldest infusion of spirit and smart growth it can get.



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