Last week, Indiewire ran a piece by Sean Farnel, a friend and colleague, asking a vital question about the future of film festivals: with the proliferation of film festivals and the decline in the viability of theatrical distribution for many independent films, what role can festivals play in creating a sustainable economic platform for filmmakers? Sean's conclusion, which argued in favor of film festivals offering cash payments to filmmakers on par with percentages found in traditional distribution models (roughly 35% of gross ticket sales), set off a great deal of debate among festival organizers and in the comments of the article, with opinions deeply divided. Indiewire invited me to respond to Sean's piece, and I am honored to be asked, but I write with some trepidation as the Internet is not a place known for reasonable, measured conversation.
As I said, Sean is a friend and colleague, so I want to be clear that the thoughts presented here are not in any way seen to be a judgement on Sean or his experience, but I do think and honest assessment of his ideas, and some of the assumptions behind them, is in order. Instead of responding directly to Sean's argument, I thought it important to instead describe the current reality of film festival organizing in this country and to present a case for transparency and clarity in this environment. I want to use my own experience as Director of the Sarasota Film Festival as a framework for this discussion if only because it allows me to address what I know to be true and because Sarasota is a relatively large, non-profit regional festival of the type that makes up the vast majority of festivals in this country.
In the autumn of 2008, following what seemed to be a very successful festival in April of that year, our festival was forced to undergo a radical transformation in its economic structure. Sarasota, which was at the epicenter of the real estate market collapse, was confronted with significant cuts in sponsorship dollars (which collapsed along with the real estate business), individual giving (which was tied to the stock market crash and real estate values) and state and local funding (while Florida has no state income tax, property taxes are vital to government funding, so that when property values declined, so did revenues).
Working with our management team, our Board of Directors responded to this crisis by making deep cuts across the organization to create both a sustainable economic model for our festival and offset existing expenses we had taken on during better economic times. Like most, our organization was forced to reassess its position and viability in the face of lost revenues and new deficits and we responded by becoming leaner, more efficient and by tightening the margins around the key areas of our festival: staff costs and size, film presentation (projection), guest services (filmmaker travel and hospitality), marketing,
That same year, in addition to my duties with Sarasota, I was hired by The Newport International Film Festival in Newport, RI to program the festival. The organization was carrying a deficit into 2009 and despite the best efforts of management, with Rhode Island having some of the worst unemployment numbers in the country, the festival only broke even on the year. Unable to raise enough money to host the festival and simultaneously pay down previous deficits, the Board of the festival shuttered the organization. And while a group of excellent and dedicated locals have kept film alive in this amazing community by starting newportFILM, a year-round organization that hosts a screening series at various venues around the city, Newport is left without a festival.
Across both of these festivals, every stone was turned to find ways to keep them solvent; nothing was spared and the impacts of the economic downturn remain in place to this day. So does the economic environment for fundraising. As non-profits around the country work harder than ever to secure limited numbers of grants, sponsors and donors, the costs of operating a film festival continue to creep upward; travel costs, new technologies (including the transition to Digital Cinema) and a general decline in sponsor dollars have created a new set of challenges. Thankfully, surviving festivals are working hard to deliver great events to their communities and industry constituencies (filmmakers, distributors, the press), but as these changes require diligent management, an entirely new set of economic pressures are being shifted on to festivals, those of traditional film distribution.