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Festival Circus: How Film Festivals Can Avoid Failure

By Robert Koehler | Indiewire December 24, 2013 at 10:00AM

If you get the feeling that festivals come and go, there's a reason.
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Tribeca Film Festival
Tribeca Film Festival

If you get the feeling that festivals come and go, there's a reason.

Right now, four out of ten U.S. festivals fail to make it past their first year.

That's not a statistic that those planning the launch of their new festival want to hear, but if they want to avoid being a statistic themselves, it's probably worth noting.

Visiting some festivals, the keen observer can spot some signs why certain events survive and thrive, and why others don’t.

One hour into my stay in the funky college town of Columbia, Mo. for the True/False festival, it was obvious why this is one of the best mid-size events anywhere. The entire town was involved, the box office locations were swarming with ticket buyers and folks were snapping up the unique merchandise, most of it original work by local artists. Everywhere, things hummed with organization and good vibes.

On the other hand, a fledgling festival in San Juan, Puerto Rico I attended a few years ago -- lodging was an ultra-cool beachside resort cabana complete with a private path to the nearby beach -- proved more skilled at spending crazy amounts of money on guests than assembling a meaningful and engaging program for local audiences. It was never heard from again.

Right now, four out of ten U.S. festivals fail to make it past their first year.

I don’t know why the Turks and Caicos film festival died after its first year, but its demise shows that you can plunk a festival down in the most posh vacation resort locale imaginable, complete with deep-pocketed local supporters -- a formula that so-called "destination festivals" have tried for years -- and you can still tank.

The recent collapse of the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival is a reminder that it's probably not a great idea to depend on the wallet of a single individual -- in this case, the wallet of LALIFF's longtime benefactor and chief master of ceremonies Edward James Olmos -- for a lot of key funding and year-to-year operational costs. Especially when, in a city with a huge Latino audience, crowds don't turn up and the best possible films aren't selected. The writing seemed to be on the wall for LALIFF a year ago, when the 16th edition was cancelled.

It looks rough out there. But there are some general points that young festivals might want to think about it if they want to be part of the surviving six of ten rather than the flailing four.

Define your festival and keep it small at first. The people that hatch the idea for a new festival are sometimes those who will run it or create its content -- the executive director, the program director -- or those with the money to fund it. But why do it? To fulfill a burning personal dream? For civic boosterism? To fill a vacuum created by the failure of the last festival? Answer those questions and then a budget can be set. The budget defines the festival's scale. Don't go over it.

Stick to your definition. Is a festival that states in its name that it focuses on a region of the world -- say, Asia -- safely able to narrow its programming to only that region's art cinema and ignore its popular and yet-to-be-celebrated genres, or vice versa? Over the long term, probably not. An event that identifies itself as a "festival-of-festivals" can maybe morph into one that's heavy with world premieres, but Toronto is the only successful case of this in the world.

This article is related to: Festivals, Festival Circus, Laurie Kirby, Locarno International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival





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