December 6, 2013 will mark Echo Park Film Center’s 12th year of operation. It is true what they say: time flies.
For those unfamiliar with our organization, we are a media arts center located in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. We basically do 5 things:
• Screen experimental and documentary films and videos in our 60-seat microcinema
• Teach free and low-cost film and video classes
• Run an equipment rental co-op and retail store
• Operate a traveling film school and cinema known as the EPFC Filmmobile
• Host local and international artist residency programs.
How did we get here? How did we succeed? How can you start your own Film Center?
In 2001, at the dawn of the new millennium, a group of us (artists, filmmakers, community activists, musicians, teachers, etc.) were eager to create a media arts center, cinema, and school in the belly of the Hollywood beast.
There were many great organizations, DIY groups, and institutions doing interesting things in Los Angeles at that time, however, there was a void that needed to be filled. Echo Park was still a working-class neighborhood. Rent was cheap. Spaces had potential. We had a collective hunger to make something beautiful.
9/11 had just happened and American hegemony was once again rearing its ugly head. People were angry, disillusioned, confused. I was teaching filmmaking at a local community college and working part-time in the film industry (which I hated). I grew up listening to punk music, writing ‘zines and playing in bands so the formality and hierarchy of the film industry was something that I had trouble tolerating. Something needed to change.
Between jobs I would tour with my films around the US and Europe and realized that people were hungry to commune with each other and share ideas. Make art together. Screen films. Start a cinematic revolution.
I began asking myself: What did I truly love in life? And the answer I came up with was Education, Filmmaking, and Community Activism. Three simple ideas. Three ways to live life. They belonged so nicely together.
It was at my mother’s funeral, in 2000, that I announced I would continue her legacy of altruism and community activism by opening a free school and cinema in Los Angeles. I guess saying it out loud in a room of 100 people who loved her made it real.
I began riding my bicycle around the neighborhood looking for a space. I had lived in Echo Park since 1998 and taught at a bunch of the local elementary schools as the “wacky film guy” making videos with the kids. I knew a lot of the families, teachers, and community figures so I was confident that this plan would work.
I found a space, borrowed some money and recruited some friends to get the ball rolling. And the rest is history. It is my hope to share some of the tricks, strategies, and perhaps good luck that allowed us to succeed.
KNOW YOUR COMMUNITY
Why do you want to open an art space? What community do you hope to serve? Are there other organizations doing similar things in your city? What makes your project unique?
In the beginning we met with a number of community groups including non-profit organizations, after-school programs, church pastors, social justice organizations, and the local library to see if there was a need and how we could assist the community.
We knew we wanted to do free classes for kids and teach them to make films. Echo Park had historically been an underserved community with the distraction of local gangs seducing many of the kids. By convincing the community members that this was a legitimate resource, we gained favor and access to many families.
We also knew we wanted to screen films. Echo Park was originally known as Edendale and was the home to the birth of the film industry in California. Some of the early cinematic pioneers like Max Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, and Mabel Normand came west from New York in 1912 and began making films under the warm California sun. There was a precedent and tradition of innovative moviemaking in the neighborhood that had gone dormant.
Lastly, we knew we wanted to start a film co-op where people could get access to film gear, cameras, computers etc. The co-founders (Ken Fountain, Joe HIlsenrad and I) were all thrift store junkies and had our own personal stash of analog oddities that were cluttering our rooms so we made those items accessible to the community to use and borrow.
In the beginning we were simply a free film school for kids, a cinema and a film co-op. We had no adult classes, no artist residency programs and no Filmmobile. Those things were still to come.
A BUSINESS PLAN
How important is a business plan? How do you generate money to keep the doors open?
We didn’t have a business plan.
I began the organization as a sole-proprietor. It is easy to do. You simply go down to City Hall and fill out some paper work. The nice woman behind the counter asked me what I was going to do and I began this lofty and perhaps idealistic rant about creating this community art space that screened films, taught classes and inspired people to make work. There was an awkward silence and blank stare from behind Kiosk 7. And she simply said….”Let’s just say you are opening a camera store. It will make things easier.”
So I got a business license that said “Camera Store”. For the first 3 years, I needed to declare the business on my taxes and any money made was reported as income. The good news was that we didn’t make any money; just enough to pay the rent and utilities. The money we made from rentals and services went back into the organization and money from screenings was split 50/50 between the filmmaker and the Film Center.
We all worked as volunteers and kept our other jobs to survive.
Why start small when the dreams are big?
I remember telling friends that we would screen films every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night and they simply laughed. I was urged to start small and limit screenings to once a week. Make it special. Make it something that people would be excited about.
The joy of living in a big city is also the curse. On any given night there are hundreds of things to do. Why do people want to spend time and $5 at your venue?
I think it was the intimacy of our space (originally 20 seats, now 60), the democracy in programming (if you had an idea for a screening we would welcome it), and the connections we had built within the experimental film community by touring and teaching that made us unique.
We picked Thursday night as our cinema evening. Now 12 years later, we have continuously screened films on Thursday night without interruption.
BECOMING A NON-PROFIT
Why do organizations become non-profits? Is it easy? What are the pros and cons?
As the years passed and the income we generated began to grow, it became evident that we needed to change the way we were organized. Many small arts organizations find a fiscal sponsor or “umbrella” organization through which they can accept monetary contributions and circumvent the long and arduous task of filling out the paperwork with the IRS to become an autonomous 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization. Most fiscal sponsors take 5% to 10% of the contribution as an administrative fee and are responsible for making sure the money is used without malfeasance according to funder and IRS stipulations.
This is helpful if you are a small organization and only receive a few small grants a year. We did this from 2002 to 2005 with limited success. We found a local neighborhood group willing to be our fiscal sponsor but as we grew and saw the potential for autonomy we decided to bite the bullet and become a non-profit with the understanding that this meant bringing decidedly un-punk things like Articles of Incorporation, Bylaws, accountants, and a Board of Directors into the mix.
Do some research in your city and look for some “lefty lawyers” that will help you with your paperwork pro bono. In Los Angeles there is a great group called Public Counsel but I am sure there are many others across the US. They helped us complete and file our 501(c)3 application and within 9 months we got our official non-profit status with the IRS.
People always approach me and say “I want to start my own non-profit so I can get access to all this free money and pay myself!” It makes me laugh. EPFC was in operation for ten years before the organization was able to provide a modest salary for my 80+ weekly hours of work as Executive Director/Programmer/ Teacher/Grant Writer/Store Clerk/Dishwasher. The streets are not paved with gold in the non-profit world and there are too many wonderful organizations competing for a finite (and increasingly shrinking) amount of funding.
You will be spending countless hours trying to “convince” the powers that be that what you are doing is significant and deserving of their support. It is a frustrating world filled with anxiety and insecurity. Over the years I’ve had a number of nonprofits tell me they did not want to partner with us as we were their competition in vying for same pool of money. Maybe it is true but it is sure as hell depressing.
Don’t let the thirst for money dilute why you are doing what you are doing. We have never let the lack of funds slow us down. Keep your passion burning… it’s the only thing that will carry you through the tough times. The organization must come before the individual in order to stay true to the mission: Inspire. Educate. Activate. Empower.
Are you thinking about sustainability and funding diversification? You should be!
Social entrepreneurship is a term you often hear in the non-profit world, maybe a little too often. When we first began, such terminology was completely foreign to me, however, we did have an innate grassroots entrepreneurial spirit that helped us survive.
Many non-profits survive off grants and grants alone. When the economy stagnates or a funder suddenly changes its giving strategy, the anticipated fiscal flow gets cut starting a domino effect that can undermine or even destroy an organization. So there is a trend now in the non-profit world that encourages long-term strategic planning with a push towards diversified funding sources, community partnerships/support and self-generated income.
Thrift stores are a prime example. People donate their junk to these places—Goodwill, Salvation Army or St. Vincent de Paul to name a few—and they then sell the goods to raise funds for their philanthropic deeds.
We take in revenue from equipment and venue rentals, telecine transfers, cinema admission, membership, and tuition from our film and video workshops for adults, providing a steady stream of unrestricted income when things get tight. In addition, this model invites our community to be an ongoing support team for EPFC programs and services rather than occasional supporters at overpriced, overblown fundraising events.
How can you guarantee a full house for events?
I don’t think I will ever figure this one out. Some nights we screen the most beautiful film ever made and we have 6 people in the audience. Other nights someone rents out the cinema to show their tired independent feature and there is a standing-room-only crowd.
Once again, I think this is where living in a big city hurts us. I have heard that microcinemas in smaller towns consistently pack the house with a regular crowd. EPFC presents some of the most adventurous and diverse film/video programming in the nation but in Los Angeles people tend to only come to a screening if they know the filmmaker or there is a buzz around a show. This is saddest for traveling filmmakers who are unknown in the local community. We love hosting touring artists (as that is how we lived for years on the road) but it is hard to fill seats. It feels like people are less likely than ever to take a chance and come to see work by an artist they have never heard of. At the very least we can offer a place to stay, some food to eat, a few bucks, and a small but mighty gathering of kindred cinema spirits.
From day one, education has been our foundation. We began with free classes for “at risk” youth and senior citizens, then added low cost analog (Super 8 & 16mm) and digital classes (Final Cut Pro, Photoshop & Documentary Filmmaking) for adults, and topped it all off with an array of one-time-only workshops by local and visiting filmmakers.
Each group brings different elements of joy and wonder. It is an important way to get the community involved. Many of our students have never made a film and never felt like they could. They become active and empowered media makers.
Keep classes affordable and diverse. Listen to your community and find out what they are eager to learn. Invite your fellow filmmakers and local educators to share their skills and experience. Encourage the students to become the teachers. Film is the universal language; the moving image has the power to change the world.
How does an artist residency work?
Since 2005, we have offered a month-long artist residency every August. We invite an international filmmaker to live, work and teach in Los Angeles, using Echo Park Film Center as their muse and home base. In exchange for transportation, housing, equipment access and a small stipend, we ask that they teach a 2-week class to neighborhood youth, curate a night of films and create some work (traditionally a film) during their stay. Our community learns from the visiting filmmaker; living in the City of Angels inspires the filmmaker. Everybody wins.
This program has been such a success that we now do a residency program for Los Angeles-based artists. Coined LA AIR, it encourages local filmmakers to utilize EPFC resources to create a new work over a 4-week period. The results have been magical.
And then what?
Years ago a group of us made a film at the Rosebud Lakota Reservation in South Dakota and were struck by the many stories the people of this land had to share and the complete lack of local resources to do so. What if we were able to take everything we did at the Echo Park Film Center and bring it to underserved communities outside our own neighborhood?
It was that easy. In 2007, we bought a decommissioned school bus from an Air Force base near Seattle, Washington. Then worked with a really cool local designer/fabricator and an equally cool alternative energy buff to tear out the seats, weld solar panels on the roof, and convert the engine to run on veggie oil. Thus was born the EPFC Filmmobile: A full-service cinema and film school on wheels.
It really is a thing of beauty, allowing us to reach communities in need that can’t get to the Film Center. Mostly we use the bus throughout Los Angeles County but have also done tours, screenings and workshops across the United States, Canada and Mexico.
If we ever leave our physical space in Los Angeles, the future of EPFC activism is really on the road with the Filmmobile.
LOVE WHAT YOU DO AND WHO YOU WORK WITH
What’s love got to do with it?
I met my soul mate and the love of my life at the Film Center. Lisa Marr is a musician, filmmaker, writer, activist and one of the key reasons the Echo Park Film Center has become what it is today. Our love of art, community, education and filmmaking brought us together, and together we have built a thing of beauty.
Love what you do and love whom you work with. Only once in our 12 years have we formally “hired” someone. Every other staff member, mentor, teacher, and teaching assistant has come from within. The majority of our teachers were once students. And all of our staff over the years have simply been people who showed up to volunteer and never left. Working at EPFC isn’t a job but rather a way of life; a demanding one and a rewarding one.
There is open and clear communication between our staff and teachers. We are a family. We look out for each other. We help each other.
Hopefully after reading all this you are inspired to start your own Film Center. Every community needs and deserves one!
And so I leave you with these words of wisdom told to me by a friend when EPFC started 12 years ago. “Always reinvent yourself and never stagnate.” I really believe this has been the secret to our success.