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DISPATCH FROM VEGAS | Ann Arbor Declares Victory As Summit Examines the State of Fests

DISPATCH FROM VEGAS | Ann Arbor Declares Victory As Summit Examines the State of Fests

The Ann Arbor Film Festival made news, announcing a settlement in its federal lawsuit against the state of Michigan, at the 4th annual International Film Festival Summit earlier this week. Word came as festival organizers from around the country met near Las Vegas, NV to talk about the state of their growing industry and discuss some of the challenges facing film festivals today.

Ann Arbor fest executive director Christen McArdle announced that in exchange for her state’s legislature repealing restrictions on arts funding, the Ann Arbor event would voluntarily dismiss its lawsuit. The festival’s future was in jeopardy recently as the event battled the state government that pulled funding from the acclaimed forty-six year old fest claiming that its programming was objectionable. The state had provided more than 5% of the festival’s budget, she said during a panel discussion on Monday, adding that she decided to pursue an ACLU-backed lawsuit to “hold [her] government accountable for their guidelines.”

New Michigan guidelines for arts funding will mirror the National Endowment for the Arts guidelines, according to an announcement, stating that “Artistic excellence and artistic merit are the criteria by which applications will be judged, taking into consideration general standards of decency and respect for the diverse beliefs and values of the people of this state.”

Other festival programmers noted that they faced similar content restrictions from corporate funders. During a discussion, one festival head from the American south noted that a lead sponsor recently warned him against screening Alan Ball‘s “Towelhead,” after hearing about the film following its Toronto debut. Threatened that the sponsor would pull financing if the event proceeded to show the film, the festival head indicated that he would nevertheless pursue screening the film. Commenting on the lawsuit to protect the presentation of the arts in her state, Ann Arbor’s McArdle said that the lawsuit has made it evident to her “why festival’s are here and why the arts are important.”

Also on Monday, Variety publisher Charlie Koones, in a keynote address, estimated that there are some 6,000 – 7,000 film festivals in the world. So, it should be no surprise to anyone that there is a convention for festival organizers. Launched a few years ago in New York City, the event moved to Vegas last year and then headed to Henderson, NV this year, at an emerging lakeside resort about a half hour from the Vegas strip. For a couple of days, seasoned veterans and newcomers alike discussed everything from the minutae of ticketing procedures and fundraising to bigger picture issues looking at the state of film festivals.

Toronto International Film Festival director Piers Handling addressed attendees as the event kicked off Sunday. “[As for ] the growth of fests, I think it is going to continue,” explaining that festivals have become an a distribution system as the art cinema circuit has faltered. “We are turning into an alrternative distribution and exhibition system,” Handling emphasized, adding, “I can only see it actually growing.”

“The world of film festivals is only going to get stronger and stronger,” Handling concluded in his remarks, but saying that he is concerned that festival’s run the risk of being “co-opted by the industry,” adding, “It is absolutely vital that we stay fresh and maintain our cutting edge.”

Many veteran festival organizers noted that the summit is generally geared more towards those hoping to gain knowledge, and most agreed that it provided vital networking access typically unavailable anywhere else. By the final day of the conference, a number of participants were already talking about next year’s event. Grousing that this year’s event was held a bit too far away from the Las Vegas Strip for attendees to partake in its after-hours attractions, many began buzzing on Tuesday that the conference should move to Austin, TX next year instead of returning to Vegas in 2008. Conference organizers are planning the IFFS Europe for April of next year.

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