Celebrating 17 Years of Film.Biz.Fans.
by Robert Koehler
December 24, 2013 10:00 AM
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Festival Circus: How Film Festivals Can Avoid Failure

The Locarno Film Festival's Piazza Grande.

Get a strong executive director. Laurie Kirby, executive director of the International Film Festival Summit and past executive director of festivals as disparate as the Newport (R.I.), Barbados ad U.S. Sports festivals, pointed out in a recent conversation with Indiewire that a solid director knows how to build and cast a board of directors, the key element that makes or breaks a festival organization. "The director finds board members for whom the festival is the number one priority, and then guides them to resist unwise temptations like luring an expensive celebrity," she said. "The director assigns each board member a role, and makes sure they play those roles."

Program the best available movies. That's not as obvious as it would seem. It first means that the executive director, and maybe the board (depending on their expertise), know how to headhunt for the best available program director. The programmer's job is to follow the festival's self-definition (see 1.) and program for quality, not quantity.  I argued in a previous column that programmers feeling the pressure from board members to the festival publicists to book world premieres with stars (or, at least, names) had best resist it. The big-time festivals internationally (Cannes, Berlin, Toronto, Locarno, Venice) and nationally (Sundance, SXSW) function as gateways for a ton of world premieres. Other festivals can generally sift through everything that comes through those gates to pick and choose.

Pick and choose the best, but don’t forget the audience. When he was headed up Locarno during a brilliant three-year run, Olivier Pere told me during a quiet moment that the hardest task programming Locarno was selecting the right movies for the nightly screenings in the Swiss city’s Pizza Grande, home to the biggest open-air setting in the festival world. The trick was finding the right balance between picking what satisfied Pere's high standards and what met audience expectations -- often meaning smart entertainments, like "Attack the Block." What's true for Pere is true for programmers and festival directors picking red-carpets, opening and closing or event titles. "It's really a matter of knowing your local audience," Kirbie said. "Our Newport audience was obsessed with the ocean, architecture and history, so we aimed to include good movies with those themes."

Celebrities get publicity, publicity puts the festival and the town on the map. The audience wants it to happen. Win-win, right? Wrong.

The audience can save its festival by just saying "No." Imagine you're a resident in a town far enough away from the nearest big city to merit its own festival, and has the means and energy to get it going. You get so worked up about that you get on the festival board. You think that maybe the festival can get a big-time celebrity and get all of your friends excited. Celebrities get publicity, publicity puts the festival and the town on the map. The audience wants it to happen. Win-win, right? Festival consultants like Laurie Kirby know that this is probably the biggest mistake new festivals make, because the expense of bringing in a star (flight, lodging, meals, covering for the star’s entourage, etc.) can blow the budget. Audiences can learn that denying themselves the tempting celebrity trap might just be the thing that keeps their beloved festival out of serious red.

Keep your enemies close, and your sponsors closer. The late California pol Jess Unruh is forever known for his truism that "money is the mother's milk of politics." Sponsors and their money are the mother's milk of festivals. Like all non-profit heads, festival executive directors build their boards partly with their fundraising prowess in mind, which usually means attracting similarly wealthy friends. But getting corporate sponsors can seem like winning the lottery. "How can we get a big sponsor?" That's the first question Kirby said she hears as a consultant. Her reply: "You're probably not going to get a sponsor like a Fortune 500 company that covers most of your expenses. Work with what you’ve got in your area and region. That means getting to know the locals, and they’ll feel attached to the festival. That's how you get past that first year."

Take the guest filmmakers out to dinner. At least once, and if possible, every night. Why do filmmakers love the Vienna film festival? Well, it’s partly because of director Hans Hurch, who puts his signature on every aspect of the festival and has the cinephilia to know how to select a world-class program. But they really love it because the festival arranges for the filmmakers to dine out with each other every night while they’re in town with their movies. Many friendships have been formed there; even better, the filmmakers go back to their home base and tell their colleagues about how great Vienna is. The message spreads exponentially: If you have to choose between festivals, go to Vienna, since it treats you beautifully. The Morelia film festival enjoys the same rep. A good dinner goes a long way. When you have filmmakers fighting to get to your festival, you've already won.

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  • 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:

  • 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.

  • 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.