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by Robert Koehler
December 24, 2013 10:00 AM
11 Comments
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Festival Circus: How Film Festivals Can Avoid Failure

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.

11 Comments

  • Vanessa Erazo | January 1, 2014 4:41 PMReply

    The Los Angeles Latino Film Fest was cancelled in 2012 but came back in 2013. To my knowledge it hasn't "collapsed." The New York International Latino Film Festival, though, has completely shut down as of 2013.

  • Jose Alberto | December 31, 2013 5:10 AMReply

    Great article! Easy to read and follow. I just have a few questions: What about programming? What about the importance of media? How to treat members of the press right?

  • Lauri Tanner | December 25, 2013 10:32 PMReply

    Great article…

    I would be glad to give a complimentary PDF copy of my book on "Creating Film Festivals" to anyone who contacts me and mentions this post.

    I carried out more than 600 hours of interviews with dozens of folks who have started and run film & video festivals around the world, and offer the perspective of nonprofit administration and arts management. Current festival managers & curators may also find the book of interest for the oral histories of many successful festivals.

    More at http://filmfestivalbook.com and feel free to email me at laurirose@mac.com.

    PS. Congrats to Elliot Grove & Raindance re: comment below!

  • Mark Pope | March 18, 2014 5:41 PM

    Here is the link to a 2009 doctoral dissertation about film festivals that truly is free and does not require you first reveal all your organizational plans and details and swear secrecy on a stack of bibles before letting you read it:
    http://epublications.bond.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1076&context=theses

  • Mark Pope | March 18, 2014 5:17 AM

    In the interest of full disclosure regarding "include project background", after getting your contact information Lauri Tanner will eventually require you to also "include details about your festival project and start-up committee, why you are interested in the book or intentions for citations/research, etc." Not sure how she expects prople who have never seen or heard of her book before to know enough about it to answer these questions. I just thought I would read it.

  • Lauri Tanner | December 31, 2013 4:07 PM

    PPS. To those of you responding to my offer of complimentary PDF copies of the "Creating Film Festivals" book: when you email me, please mention that you are replying to this Indiewire article offer, and please include the same contact information I request from all purchasers of the manual (mailing address, telephone, project background, etc.) Thank you. LRT

  • Lauri Tanner | December 25, 2013 10:36 PM

    In my 2014 update edition of the manual, I will certainly add a link to this article, which complements many of the caveats and suggestions that the book offers.
    LRT

  • Milan Smith | December 25, 2013 6:46 AMReply

    Zurich Film Festival is a great exemple how to do it right.. it's entering it's 10th year 2014 and has grown super fast over the last nine years.

  • Salty Bill | December 24, 2013 6:57 PMReply

    There are simply too many film festivals. Let the lame ones die, and support the great ones.

  • JD | December 24, 2013 10:48 PM

    But then the great ones get too big and only let established filmmakers in like Sundance tends to do.

  • Elliot Grove | December 24, 2013 2:49 PMReply

    I'd hjave to both agree and disagree with your points, Robert. It is really sad to see so many festivals hit the dust.

    I started Raindance in 1992, and as your advice suggests, kept it small. I mean it was really small. I did everything myself the first few years. Then people kept joining and helping out. And as we survived and started to thrive we really didnt do anyof the things you suggest.

    Maybe we are lucky as we head into edition 22.