Legendary philosopher Lucius Seneca wrote, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
If that’s true, one of the luckiest men alive is Film Independent’s president, Josh Welsh. “If you’d have told me then, where I’d be today, I’d have said you’re crazy,” he says.
Crazy? More like insane.
A young teacher armed with a Ph.D. in philosophy, Welsh set out for personal reasons on a quest that took him from the east coast to LA. “It was in the late ’90s, early 2000s. That was the time when independent film was just taking off. That sector was growing exponentially,” explains Welsh.
His life was about to become as fanciful and unlikely as one of those independent films this Washington, D.C., native so enjoyed. As many who yearned to touch, feel, and become part of the creative fabric of Hollywood, Welsh knew networking was a must. So he joined Film Independent as a subscriber.
For the simple price of an annual fee, he was suddenly a “member” of the industry. A Film Independent cardholder is provided with opportunities to screen new releases, receive invitations to red carpet premiers, listen and meet filmmakers/executives, and attend special sneak-viewings at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
But the true jump into this field was going to require more than an annual fee. It would take a huge amount of luck … or as they say, ‘an uncle in the business.’
Lacking one of those, Welsh had to make it on his own. Proudly armed with his Film Independent membership card, Tinseltown’s new arrival decided to check out the nonprofit independent film organization he had joined. Fortunately, Welsh met then-president Dawn Hudson, who convinced him to become part of Film Independent’s volunteer program.
That was 2001 and he hasn’t left since. Not not only did he find a job, but Welsh found a passion, and a mentor in Hudson. Her guidance led to Welsh ultimately being handed the baton as her successor when she left the company a decade later.
During his 14-year tenure with Film Independent, Welsh has helped develop new programs. With them, the organization has grown from 10 to 45 full-time employees.
But that’s not how he gauges success. Welsh describes it this way: “Film Independent has become a key part of the film ecosystem. We’re really proud of the work that we’ve done here … at this point people seek us to see who are the new filmmakers, who are the new writers they should be paying attention to.”
Film Independent has never wavered in its founding principle of providing education to anyone who was interested. With the inception of the screenwriting lab launched in 2001, a metamorphosis began. Soon demand outnumbered resources. The lab became a selective program. Welsh explains that its success led to “a whole suite of artist development programs where we have labs for writers, directors, producers, documentary filmmakers, and a mentorship [program] for young filmmakers from under-represented backgrounds.”
“We consider ourselves a bridge to the film industry,” Welsh acknowledges. He has empathy for new film school grads that come out here and don’t know what the next steps are. That’s where Film Independent fits in. “We offer community, support and mentorship, opportunity, and access.”
Asked what Welsh looks for in an F.I. internship candidate, he elaborates, “Write a great screenplay. Be prepared with your best work. Cover letter and bio are also important. Vision and passion must come across.”
Welsh acknowledges the problems of diversity do dog the entertainment fields. “It’s a problem for the whole industry and it’s really a frustrating one. No lack of talent out there. There’s a lack of opportunity and access. The need is there.”
He expounds confidence that the diversity problem is fixable and he’s doing something about it. He excitedly points to the 22-year-old Project Involve. “Each year we accept 30 filmmakers from under-represented backgrounds,” he explains. “They work with professionals as well as collaborate in teams to produce short films. Then these shorts are featured at the Los Angeles Film Festival.”
Film Independent is a nonprofit organization that, among their other services, provides funding for worthy projects. Annually they give out between half and three-quarters of a million dollars in money, goods, and services – generally in amounts not exceeding $10,000. Welsh reveals, “Our funding comes from a wide array of sources. Corporate sponsorship [including LACMA, Fox Studios, L.A. Live], philanthropic individuals who support artistry and filmmaking, foundations, government support …
a very wide source of revenue.”
F.I. isn’t just education, diversification, and grants. They also produce/host two of the most prestigious events in show business – The Film Independent Spirit Awards and the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Both events celebrate projects that fall under the independent film criteria. Though definitions vary among individuals, it’s obviously a studio picture if it’s financed and totally controlled by a studio. Welsh points out, “they account for only 25 percent of all films released in the U.S.”
He takes the “independent film” definition a bit farther. He gives a precise definition which he spews in machine-gun style, “Criteria: artistic vision. A uniqueness of vision. Something that people will talk or even argue about. Something made by an individual, not a committee. A particular sensibility. A work of art made by a film artist. With a budget less than $20 million. Percentage of money coming from independent sources. Original, provocative subject matter. Human, personal, character driven stories.”
The Spirit Awards and the Los Angeles Film Festival annually generate millions in revenue to the Los Angeles area retail sector. Each year they draw ever-growing thousands of visitors as well as introduce numerous independent film projects to the world. This past year’s Spirit Awards best film nominees are familiar names despite being independent films: Birdman, Boyhood, Selma, Whiplash, and Love Is Strange.
Welsh does have a tip for budding filmmakers. “Don’t just go out and make a movie. Take the time and put in the effort to make a great movie.”
Stylistically running a company
hands -on, plus keeping his wife Bonnie and 8-year-old daughter Isla happy, seems to gobble up any potential “free time.” But occasionally Welsh likes to sneak out. Where to? Meatyard, a folk band with brother Phil in which Josh is a guitarist/singer/songwriter. The group is assembling tunes for what will be its third independent (of course) release.
It’s evident that Josh Welsh is an independent guy who’s driven every day promoting independent filmmakers. His company helps educate, integrate, and generate creative visions. He is a true champion for innovative new voices. With a dab of Seneca’s philosophy on luck, added to Welsh’s ample preparation and offerings, independent filmmakers are breathing a little bit easier. Thanks to him, there’s a growing supply of luck going around.