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FIRST PERSON | Basil Tsiokos: The Challenging State of Film Fests Today

FIRST PERSON | Basil Tsiokos: The Challenging State of Film Fests Today

At the end of October, after 12 years with the organization, I officially stepped down from my position as the Artistic Director of NewFest: The New York Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender Film Festival, which just celebrated its 20th Anniversary. Within the last year, three of the other best-known U.S. LGBT film fests have also experienced significant staff changes, beginning with the departure of Outfest‘s Executive Director Stephen Gutwillig, followed by Frameline‘s Artistic Director Michael Lumpkin, and, most dramatically, by the wholesale staff restructuring of the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. While some of these changes were simply career shifts after long tenures, others were unfortunately borne out of economic necessity.

While I can’t and won’t speak for my colleagues at these other festivals, as I make my own departure from NewFest, following NewFest’s Kerry Weldon leaving earlier in the year, I offer some thoughts about the state of LGBT film festivals and about non-profit film organizations in general in this difficult economy.

Over the past several months, even before news of the financial crisis broke, it’s been an open secret that many film festivals around the U.S. have been suffering – while some have managed to secure enough funding to stay in operation, others (like the recently shuttered Jackson Hole Film Festival) haven’t been so lucky. While I leave NewFest in the capable hands of my Board of Directors and on good terms, chiefly out of a desire to move on to new challenges elsewhere (yet to be determined), it would be disingenuous to not acknowledge that the difficult realities of non-profit funding had some role in my decision. Running a film festival, in my experience, is hardly a standard full-time job – it’s an all-the-time job. It takes a lot of time, passion, and sacrifice, and, believe me, there’s definitely not a huge personal monetary payoff. Instead there’s the satisfaction of pulling off the event each year, and pulling it off hopefully better than the previous year. But this takes money, and that’s a huge problem…

It has never been easy to secure funding for NewFest, not even during the brief dotcom boom. It’s the rare film festival that hasn’t had trouble with fundraising at some point. There are only so many places you can turn to for non-profit funding: foundations, government sources, sponsors, and individuals.

Foundation support can be invaluable, but there are a limited number of foundations that support film festivals (or LGBT organizations), and competition is fierce for the funds available, with no guarantees that you’ll receive regular funding year-to-year. Funding priorities often switch, sometimes to favor new programs, when what you need instead is support for your existing under-funded programs.

Government funding shares similar drawbacks, but NewFest has been fortunate to have regular, dependable support from both New York State (NYSCA) and New York City (DCA). But the arts in the U.S. remain shamefully under-funded, and are among the first budgets to be slashed when the government faces a deficit.

Corporate sponsorship has become a necessity for virtually every festival. For LGBT fests, it only really became viable in the mid- to late-1990s, when Madison Avenue “discovered” the gay market and began actively courting the pink dollar. While NewFest has been extremely lucky to have a number of loyal sponsors, like Showtime, it’s ultimately, and understandably, business. Corporations may appreciate supporting LGBT film, but they also have to make a profit. Marketing strategies might change after a few years of support, and a festival may find itself out a significant amount of sponsorship dollars. In this present recession, all fests are going to find it difficult to retain sponsors at the same levels, if at all, much less secure new ones to make up such shortfalls.

What does that leave? Individuals, who I will argue are especially significant for LGBT fests, and indeed for all niche fests. For NewFest, individual funding is in the form of ticket purchases, direct charitable contributions, and memberships. The first is limited by the number of programs and seats you have, as well as a reasonable ticket price. In contrast, there’s no real ceiling to charitable contributions, as long as you can successfully convince an individual to donate money for nothing tangible in return. Alternately, members make a contribution in exchange for tangible rewards – free/discounted tickets, merchandise, better seating, etc. It never fails to shock me when I see a festival that doesn’t employ a membership program, because members become invested in the event, and, by extension, in the organization.

The most common question journalists covering NewFest would ask me annually was, “Are LGBT film festivals still necessary?” As LGBT images inundated mainstream media through my tenure – from Ellen to Rosie on “The View” on network TV, from “Queer Eye” to LOGO on basic cable, from “Queer As Folk” to here! on premium cable, from “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” to “Brokeback Mountain” on cinema screens – the suggestion has grown that LGBT festivals have become increasingly irrelevant, especially in major metropolitan centers with large LGBT communities. What this ignores is that identity based niche fests serve a need beyond simply showcasing what used to be called “positive images.” Certainly, there are more LGBT images readily available in 2008 than there were when NewFest was founded in 1988 – but even then, when audiences were starved for representation, NewFest served another, more critical function: providing a communal public social setting where LGBT individuals could celebrate or debate LGBT films together with other LGBT audience members.

While this basic function might be fulfilled to some extent by attending the occasional LGBT theatrical releases in a gay neighborhood, or by gathering groups of friends to watch TV shows in a gay bar or at someone’s home, it’s not exactly the same as the experience of attending an LGBT film festival, where the space and audience is explicitly and by default LGBT. Because the setting isn’t a bar or a club, any anxieties or pressures engendered by those kinds of environments are greatly reduced. Ideally, an audience member paradoxically feels at home even while s/he is sitting in a large room full of strangers. It’s this sense of audience belonging, and, in fact, ownership, of the film festival that keeps audiences coming back and keeps the event itself necessary and relevant for the community.

I bring up this question of relevance because I think it’s an important one for all film organizations to ask themselves on a regular basis. There are a lot of similar organizations doing very similar work and, in many cases, competing for the same funding sources and audiences. For many years, LGBT film festivals have been the fastest growing type of film festivals throughout the world. This is largely because the (usually grassroots) organizers feel that their community could benefit from such an event, such as the courageous organizers of the embattled Side By Side in St Petersburg, Russia, who I previously wrote about for indieWIRE. Reacquainting a festival with this sense of purpose, and the empowerment it can have for its invested audience, can help many niche festivals weather the present economic storm. At the same time, others will find themselves unable to make a compelling case for their continued existence, at least not in the same form. And, though this might sound harsh, a little thinning of the herd may not be the worst thing.

While I have left NewFest, I’m aware of some of the plans for the 2009 festival – the Board has taken careful stock of the organization and its role in both the NYC LGBT community and in the larger film industry, and leaves me optimistic as to its potential for the next 20 years. I wish the same for the larger film festival world out there.

[ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos left the position of Artistic Director for NewFest: The NY LGBT Film Festival at the end of October 2008. Since 2005, he has also been a Programming Associate for the Sundance Film Festival, focusing on U.S. Documentary Features. He can be reached here via mail.]

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