A resource grows in Brooklyn: New York’s new Media Center offers a home for storytellers


New York City’s outer borough of Brooklyn continues to grow more “in,” thanks to a new and wholly unique media space for storytelling creation in our digital and technologically evolving era.

Inelegantly (for now) called the Made in NY Media Center by IFP (henceforth the Center), the facility is a partnership between the Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) and the New York Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment. IFP, the country’s oldest and largest nonprofit organization for independent filmmakers, was selected as the Center’s developer and operator after the city’s Economic Development Corp. and Mayor’s Office of Media & Entertainment issued requests for proposals in March 2012.

Located at 30 John Street in Brooklyn’s artsy riverside DUMBO neighborhood, the Center is a sprawling 20,000 feet of largely unbroken ground-floor space with high ceilings and the occasional pillar—a familiar start-up template of industrial modern/comfy-cool minimalism. Only a few years in the planning stages, the renovation began early this year and is ongoing. Conveniently, the Center is only a few minutes walk away from the IFP’s Jay Street headquarters where the organization landed several years ago after abandoning its longtime Lower Manhattan home.

The Center’s late-1800s building was formerly used for manufacturing and storage and has now returned in a way to its roots as a place for “the manufacture of stories,” according to Joana Vicente, executive director of both the Center and IFP. It will serve as a work, meeting, learning and event home for storytellers in various disciplines, everything from gaming to features. For now, the emphasis is on the kind of short content that runs rampant across platforms and devices and threatens to rule the future.

Asked how creatives with ideas for more traditional long-form features might exploit the Center, Vicente states that the principles for a good story and the skills needed for their development are the same, whether the form is short or long. Whatever the project, challenges remain “finding your audience, building a sustainable career, gaining expertise in 21st-century media-making tools and having access to rich educational resources and professional mentorship,” she says. And the Center, “whether through classes, workshops, ‘hackathons,’ curated matchmaking, or incubated business and tech ideas,” supports this.

Having opened doors barely two months ago, the Center is still a work in progress but already attracting early “anchor” occupants and members as it continues to woo new members, partners and affiliates to its impressive space and incubator program. If walls could talk, buzzwords like “innovation,” “incubation,” “community” and “storytelling” would be heard.

Renovation is ongoing but already completed are outer classroom, conference room, and company headquarter spaces that ring several large and open inner spaces with tables and desks for the Center’s new creatives. The layout resembles any modern space determined to facilitate communicating, networking, sharing and learning. And certainly, creativity.

Marching in the zero-one digital age two-step, the Center is an ambitious mash-up of the creative and technology communities. Vicente prefers the word “intersection,” but whichever, this initiative impresses in terms of both size and mission. As officially described, this “work in progress” aspires to define and champion “the future of digital storytelling and empower artists by connecting them to the resources and audiences necessary to evolve their art.” Nor is commerce a wallflower, as an important Center goal is “to create new business opportunities for members and New York City itself.”

Vicente, a former indie producer with important credentials, is a perfect fit as executive director. Prior to heading the IFP, she and husband/partner Jason Kliot produced over 40 films from the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Miguel Arteta and Steven Soderbergh. They ran Open City Films, Blow Up Pictures, and, entering the digital realm, Mark Cuban’s HDNet Films.

Her credits on dozens of narrative fiction and documentaries include those for Chuck & Buck, Redacted, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Welcome to the Dollhouse. Over the years, she has also worked closely with the Mayor’s Film Office. Indeed, the Vicente/IFP/Mayor’s Office serves as a powerful triumvirate for the Center. The Mayor’s Office’s long-serving commissioner Katherine Oliver was key in making the Center a reality.

With Vicente’s deep roots in independent features, the question arises: How does she feel about this adventure into broader, unknown content terrain? Citing the great promise for the future that cross-platforms and cross-disciplines are bringing, she characterizes her involvement at the Center as “an exciting time for me personally and for the creative and tech community we’re serving.” With so much media integration going on, she says she and the Center’s staff, partners and educators all see “great promise in what the future holds and what we’re fomenting in DUMBO.” She calls the Center “the epicenter of next-generation storytelling.”

The Center has already selected such incubator projects as Seed&Spark, described as the world’s first crowd-funding and streaming distribution site specifically for indie films; Blank on Blank, a nonprofit digital studio that turns lost audio interviews with cultural icons into animated content for companies like YouTube and PBS; and design-oriented Radish Lab, an agency supporting projects designed to have a positive impact on people and their communities. Incubators were given 24/7 access to the space in early November.

The Center, as its brochure puts it, is for “anyone who has a story they would like to tell, or who wants to further their careers in media-making.” There are opportunities to rent co-working space, take classes, participate in programs. Members can take breaks in the media arts gallery or a handsome library lined for now with actual books (yes, of the paper or leather-bound variety). The café is nearing completion, as is the handsome 72-seat all-digital screening room that will offer a wide variety of programs in all sizes and ratios, including widescreen.

Further diversion also comes from the up and running media gallery where walls play with different textures and installations, whether a giant chalkboard inviting comments or announcements or visuals directly projected as panoramas or seen on wall monitors.

Significant companies have already settled in as anchor tenants and permanent affiliates. These include Astronauts Wanted, a new cross-platform entertainment company headed by former MTV Networks chairman and CEO Judy McGrath and Nick Shore that targets young people; Playmatics, which builds games as it focuses on user experiences on the Internet and in social media; and General Assembly, a New York-based global education company that will deliver on-site coursework, classes and workshops related to technology, entrepreneurship, design and, of course, storytelling. Also on board is Verizon to handle the Center’s technology solutions.

The Center began its still-running extended opening on a rolling basis in late September as it hosted open houses, info sessions and other events to introduce the space to the community. Some early members have already settled into their seats at tables and desks. And classes and workshops, open to both members and the general public, have begun.
As an example of the kind of networking that Vicente sees as another important component of the Center, she suggests members might want to try expanding their vision by pitching short content to McGrath’s Astronauts Wanted, located within shouting distance of member tables and desks (but no shouting, please).

In running the Center, Vicente will oversee such key staffers as Nekisa Cooper, producer of educational programs, who produced the critically acclaimed Pariah; director of programming Brent Hoff, who will also be programming the screening room; managing director of operations and administration Andrea Baker; and Sean McManus as the IFP’s new director of external affairs with oversight of the Center’s marketing and outreach efforts. Also on board is the Center’s inaugural Artist in Residence, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, drummer of Jimmy Fallon house band The Roots and a polymath who also works as a journalist and artist. A kind of brand ambassador for the Center, Thompson, Vicente suggests, embodies the kind of convergence in storytelling and creativity the Center is testing.

The Center offers four membership tiers. Least costly is Community Workspace, which, at $150 per month, gives members, among many amenities, daytime access to desks and access to Media Center-affiliated media and industry professionals. Incubator membership, at $450 monthly, also provides guaranteed personal desk space, mentorship, exclusive networking events and marketing exposure. Upper-tier Media Pro membership, at $5,000 annually, provides even more services (e.g., VIP access to industry and events and more instructional opportunities). The Corporate Community Builder tier, at $12,000 annually, offers greater access to the Media Center affiliates and space to serve traditional corporate needs, in addition to all other privileges. (Membership details and other Center information is available at nymediacenter.com.)

Still in start-up mode, the Center understandably is eager to bring in more funding from whomever, wherever. It has been working with a very approximate $7 million budget: about $1.5 million from New York City for capital improvement of its John Street space, $3 million by way of a grant, $500,000 from private investors, and about $800,000 from Two Trees, the pioneering developer instrumental in gentrifying the previously funky and industrial DUMBO neighborhood.

With so much hype and buzz surrounding the Center venture (the city has even slapped Center posters in downtown subway stations), it’s hard to believe that the deal for the building closed only last February and renovation began only last April. But this past October, the Center began its soft launch as it welcomed people in the city’s creative community to poke the tires.

Asked what is being learned from new members and the Center’s early visitors poking the tires, Vicente says only some tweaking in the staffing structure—meaning where and when to place staff so that all are best served as traffic and occupants increase.

“We’re getting the right kind of people across the disciplines,” Vicente observes about the Center’s broad spectrum. “It’s not anymore about the mediums, whether film, TV or Internet, as we’re about storytelling, wherever that might be. The dialogue today is amongst artists, technologists, entrepreneurs, as everyone is experimenting. And the thread also links marketing and advertising people and musicians. But it’s about the storytelling.”

Nor is the audience left out. “They are a part of this because people mustn’t create in a vacuum but be aware of where consumers are. It’s no longer sustainable to just be doing film. This expansive notion of creativity and storytelling is what’s happening and is also expanding the IFP.”

The Center, appropriately targeting young creatives among digital natives, also welcomes the digital naifs among us. It’s not about what you know, says Vicente, but about the stories you want to tell.

With its lofty ambitions and brave leaps into the tangled, flyaway, growing web of digital entertainment and storytelling, will the Center be ahead of the curve or swinging at curve balls? As its exciting future unfolds into an unknown new age, the Center does present creatives with one age-old challenge: to devise a catchy nickname that will help brand the Made in NY Media Center by IFP mouthful. It’s a creative challenge that may even defy a digital solution.