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Festival Circus: How Film Festivals Can Avoid Failure

Indiewire 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.

Locarno International Film Festival
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.
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.

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