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Sponsors, Essentials & Time: The 2009 International Film Festival Summit – Feature

The International Film Festival Summit, held every December in Las Vegas, is a conference allowing all different film festivals new or old to come together to express ideas and share information. As with a down economy, budgets get together and the sharing of resources and thought patterns are essential since when one becomes involved in their own festival, it becomes all consuming. Being able to look at arms length allows for a more allowing perspective of what can be improved offers great reflection.

Opening Keynote The key with a lot of festivals is finding the correct symbiotic relationship between sponsor and organization. Especially with airlines, it is an ongoing process because not all routes are served equally. For American Airlines whose Director Of Advertising, Promotions and Corporate Communications Bill Sanez addressed the conference, the key in their activitation is differentiation. Sanez says that as an operating entity they need to create a path but also be trackable. For example, with AFI Fest in Los Angeles, before the event they send out discount codes to participants then during the fest they activate the tracking. Afterwards they survey the AAdvantage members whom they can more precisely follow. Their goal, in his eyes, is to promote people into the family aspect of the program which means being involved in everything from promotions to saver fares to the Admiral’s Club. American Airlines’ markets are both geographical and business oriented. The problem he says is that currently most business members are flying coach and then upgrading with their miles. The one aspect that remains true, which motivated their inclusion with the “Up In The Air” promotion is that teleconferencing is not the same as actually being there. In terms of highlighting cities that are key to AA, Sanez mentions London, Tokyo, San Juan, Chicago, NY, LA, Miami and anything in Brazil and Mexico (which he highlights as an increasingly strong area). He also points out Cincinatti and Seattle as burgeoning areas as well. To show effect he encourages festival directors to check out in order to submit elements to them to show the aspect of what a certain festival as a product does since he reminds the attendees that either way, the tickets do cost them because it is a fare not sold.

Anatomy Of A Film Festival In this first iteration of the breakdown of a film festival by a staff at IFFS, the San Francisco Film Societytook the mantle. In diversifying their film festival, the most important element that because apparent early on in the conversation is the need for a year-round program to continually support the outreach to the community. Graham Leggat, executive director, speaks that if they did not have these ancillary aspects in play when the recession hit, they would in trouble. Right now they are still operating in the black. The drawback he admits during the festival at times is that, as the host, you are expected to do everything for everyone in that two-week period. For that reason, they do not program films even remotely for “didactice” or “pedantic” purposes. They also made a deal with an enlightened multiplex which allows them to use a theater year round for their different events. While he admits it doesn’t bring in any revenue, it is a gate and keeps the progression open all year round which is important in keeping your local audience engaged. In terms of altering the membership when he came in a couple years ago, Leggat speaks that originally they had done only dual membership because it was thought “only couples came to movies”. That was changed in the addition of a “high level” membership which doesn’t necessarily translate into better access but simply became an avenue of goodwill for certain donors. The structure of a festival, he also says, has to be created to bring the people together whether it be in a hospitality suite or a meeting place. He also encourages that doing private functions at private houses for VIPs and the filmmakers is invaluable because the guests feeling like they are being invited into someone’s home which makes it all the more intimate.

Rachel Rosen, who is the head of programming at the festival, says that creating a specific identity for the festival is also essential. They promote themselves as a world cinema festival. For an amount of time, the big trend was in-person tributes, but as budgets dwindle, that becomes more and more difficult for festivals across the board. She makes the iteration which might be right or wrong, that NY and San Fran are the biggest outlays nationally in terms of art house film signifying their importance in maintaining a distinct voice in terms of selections within the community.

Michelle Turnure-Salleo, who is the director of filmmaker services at the festival, says that of course community outreach over the year is extremely important as well. Right now they are helping administer office space at the Trucadero for local productions that qualify for a 6 month period. In terms of monies available for actual financing, they themselves are a physical sponsor of documentaries as well as anonymous donors. She also says they have one donor interested in doing features with a social issue ingredient.

On the back end, Anna Mae Chin, marketing manager at the San Fran Film Society, says that they try to cast a wide net in terms of new media. Social networking is important (which is obviously a given) but its effectiveness is not yet proven. She is trying to systemize the efforts and make them more streamlined. Online surveys can help but their info can be a little skewed. Such is everything.

What’s Really Going On? This panel attempts to segregate the fact from fiction in certain perceptions of how the process works. Gary Meyer, executive director at the Telluride Film Festival, begins with the fact that, of course, travel issues are always a difficulty aspect for filmmakers especially because of budgets. He works sometimes in congruence with the Toronto Film Festival to bring filmmakers in since their festivals are so close together. Meyer goes on to say that filmmakers have to increasingly become their own marketers at the film festivals. He references his previous job before Telluride was in that he helped create Landmark Theaters and that he still retains ownership of a commercial theater in San Fran, which is a separate venture than Telluride. He also believes that there needs to be a better way to get the word out on even the well regarded festival films. He testifies that the reality is that new films open every week and bomb. This he also believes is caused by the aspect of print media going away and the fact that there is not a consistent voice at regarded media outlets that consumers can trust. He speaks that VOD is an interesting but it needs to be a more creative foray to bring in people with extras. He mentions Film as a network for tracking but also signifies that they use no social networking for their festival. In his mind, there is “only one screen that’s important” – the movie screen.

By comparison, Mara Manus, executive director for the Film Society Of Lincoln Center, says the big question is how to build an audience. The outlay that the New York Film Festival presents in relation to some other festivals, she says is relatively small. Manus says though, in anticipation of their new film center (which is near completion), they will be highlighting new film runs. She makes references that “a long time ago”, she was a commercial film person who worked as a production executive at Universal. She speaks of a donor that worked with them that invested in “Frozen River” and even with distribution he only got 50% of his investment back. It is a matter of showing that effectiveness. In terms of new distribution systems, they are thinking about implementing a new channel but, as she says, “all the platforms are changing and we have to think about a role”. In terms of social networking, they have a younger staff member who dictates for the progression because “she knows how it works and we don’t”. This sounds a little shaky in terms of the outreach depending on the experience. However Manus says that they are in the final stages of capital fundraising for the film center and that there is pressure to include this social networking component which they have never pushed for before.

Another contributor on the panel, Mark Fishkin, the executive director of the Mill Valley Film Festival, says in terms of structure for a festival, you have to look at the whole organization and the mission. One of the thing that concerns him is the evolving area of distribution and what happens when a film plays on the internet. He says the distinction must be made between the film (which is a form of exhibition) and distribution (which is the way to bring money back to the filmmaker). The key with the internet, in his mind, is that there needs to be a filter. His concern is what happens to filmmakers after they hit something like SxSW. The aspect is that prints will ultimately disappear. At that point, it doesn’t matter if you have two screenings or 20. It is just a matter of how you profit from that. Mirroring the thoughts of the San Francisco Film Society, he says looking at a festival as a year-round organization should be primary since you have to give benefit back to the community. Fishkin believes that if festivals aren’t doing that, it will be tough for them to survive. He also makes the bridge that “not every film festival can be a world premiere” which is an ongoing problem in terms of certain films playing which ultimately underworks the system.

Lastly, Janet Pierson, the Festival & Conference Producer at SxSW, says that, by comparison, all they do in Austin is work for this one event. She serves as a VP at the Austin Film Society but it is non-profit. For her, the entire process is a changing dialogue on what independent film means while still being sensitive to filmmakers’ needs. One of the aspects of the fest she is most proud of is the day and date element they did with IFC during the festival. This new kind of distribution model, she says, reflects something that was already in play. She proudly states that they have grown every year by leaps and bounds. The question becomes how to evolve and repeat that. Ultimately her job, she believes, is to connect talent to audiences. The key right now is to figure out how to make film and interactive work more closely together. She believes that a film festival needs to be true to its place since “festivals have different reasons for being”. Some festivals are chamber events. Others are social and cultural celebrations. Some are simply nationally known. People talk about collaborations but most of these involve just an informal element of talking and not necessarily an official role. This is why banding together at certain point cannot work. There might be a difference in branding ultimately as well as different agendas. For her, looking specifically at SxSW, Austin is not a traditional art town since there is more of a micro-programming element going on. In terms of social networking she reveals that she has seen no corrolation between people using Twitter and people going to movies. SxSW, she explains, started as a music festival and evolved. They do not pay for films to show and look to conversations they are already in with filmmakers to motivate this angle of the relationship. Last year, she said the premieres were a big issue but it ultimately comes out in the end about being sensitive.

Anne Thompson, who writes Thompson On Hollywood for Variety, moderated the panel soft spokenly. When asked for her perspective, she says that the whole questions remains in the thought of how future distribution will work because right now the dollars are not getting through to everyone.The fantasies permeating the industry, she believes, are impractical. There needs to be a funneling mechanism for the material which is not in place.

Fests Role In Educating Filmmakers This panel explored the aspect about how much festivals should truly be involved in the emerging filmmaking process and how education figures into this equation.

Jason Carney, the executive director of the Phoenix Film Festival, says that moderators on panels ironically are a good starting point but admits that it is a very specific slope. He recollects a casting director who hijacked a panel. Moderators, he stresses, need to have balance and maintain the audience. It has to work to the certain angle of making the filmmakers able to sell themselves. “Education” as a word, he says, can be “very sexy” in terms of when it comes down to grants and the involvement of state governments. Ultimately though the expectations for the films at the festival come down to honesty about what the festival can actually do which has to be communicated to the filmmakers.

Leo Sears, the executive director of the Big Island Film Festival in Hawaii, says that ultimately in working with the filmmakers is about knowing the person and trust and the willing to share ideas. While this is very spiritual, at times, it is not very practical which made the comments come off as vague. One of his angles, being a filmmaker himself, is encouraging more filmmaking from Hawaii residents. The one element that has become more prevalent is that filmmakers on the islands are starting to team up to get productions going.

Jury Selection & Perception The aspect of who to integrate into your jury and the necessity of the process is precipitated on the basic interpretation of your festival, its visibility and the pros and cons of the requisite intellectuals and or big names. For some, like the AFI Film Festival, the visibility is key but the scheduling has to be precise. One of the great insight that is sometimes not perceived is doing separate jury screenings in the morning when the interactions of the day are not at play, especially since many film festivals do not start screening during the day until 1pm or later. Of course, AFI has some pull in terms of screening options whereas some others do not.

For a smaller festival like the London Underground Festival, who was also on the panel, the point that was discussed was that because of their structure, the jury winners are selected before the festival even began to ensure that the filmmakers were present. The essence of their festival in many elements is community. This perception seems to play to that although not all festivals can do this.

Rose Kuo, Artistic Director at AFI Fest, knows that personalities have to be given a certain amount of rules. The distinction especially with name jurors which AFI does recruit on a regular basis, is one of visibility. Jurors are required to show up and walk the red carpet for a certain amount of functions, most specifically the galas in addition to their viewing duties, arched with exceptional scheduling as indicated by the time frame of morning. The only problem that can happen is late night parties which are a staple of film festivals and, of course, essential to networking.

Marc Lhormer, Founder of the Napa Valley Film Festival, which is texture used to be Sonoma, understands the aspect of the social function in balance. With his festival based squarely in wine country, that aspect is obviously of major importance. The angle that he has found over the years is to use alot of the same jury members so there is an aspect of consistency. This maintains a certain status quo for sure but might prevent new voices (or maybe not). He currently is talking to a well regarded writer/director in the Hollywood community who is interested in being part of the jury. Of course the angle is when you open up that can of worms, perhaps like AFI in comparison, you have to expect possibly an entourage and other expenses which make one examine the budget and balance needed which is always very important.

Living Groups & Exhibitor Cocktails The personification of seeing what your fellow film programmers and acquisition execs lies within the perception of your community and knowing where and when to continue though its necessity. Within the Living Group attended, the diversification of the different festivals and their locations keyed directly into what was necessary. The Oxford Film Festival based in Mississippi was gestated out of the University of Mississippi but is not directly associated with it which causes a slight “if and when” procedure which allows for either side to take the first steps. While it was explained that the sponsorship level was adequate for such a festival, the operative angle becomes either to be a “community” festival or to work outward. The Smoky Mountain Film Festival, also part of The Living Group attended, keys to a specific region but again the aspect becomes regional.

The festival angle with the most angle within the group was the Orlando Film Festival, which was headed by a first time festival director. He had come in to take over the reigns last year having won the festival the previous year with his own film. Being a local and specified with bringing production to Orlando, he seemed properly positioned, even though he readily admits that he didn’t know the process in terms of submissions or structure. What he did was bring in his film team from his productions and structured the festival as if it were a production. As the festival closed only back in November, its success is still being tallied. However, as a free film festival (the tickets were completely sponsor supported – much like AFI in LA), it seemed to do its way well. His key is learning from his peers and from that perspective he will go far. On the other side of town, the exec director of the Florida Film Festival (who also runs the local Enzian Art Theater) maintains his pace as well. The great element is seeing the two directors talk (as their festivals are at separate times of the year) about how to work with each other. Discussing over Heinekens always helps the situations as tales of “Blair Witch” (which was created out of the Orlando area) were recounted.

The Unconference The Unconference was also a very helpful roundtable structure where different directors and representatives from different festivals sat at tables and pooled their experiences to identify common problems and fixes for many of the angles facing film festivals today. The discussion at play within this particular table consisting of maybe 10 people was the aspects of sponsors. The aspect debated wandered between visibility and exclusivity. The San Francisco Film Festival spoke of a Motorola interaction that provided VIP access but yet no one was allowed in. The Orlando Film Festival brought up the pull-out of a liquor sponsor just hours before a major party which also included a money element. These occurrences will always happen. Almost always the money comes in post-festival although the intent is do so before. The Gen Art Film Festival talked about revolving different sponsors from magazines to liquor and while this might work with such a connected festival operating in Manhattan’s East Village, it most of the time is not conducive to smaller festivals who truly need the help and cannot barter because of their standing. With the economy pulling back, sponsors are becoming more scarce but the question becomes how far do you bend over backwards before you snap.

Late Night @ Prive & Closing Reception @ Hawaiian Tropic While the vodka necessarily flowed through the pandorum of Prive, the lights swirling made way for twirled shots in the back room before the exit led to an entrance. The Closing Reception based around the fact that Johnny Walker always goes down smooth permeated the truth that sitting around sharing a pitcher can truly be effective. Holding court with Orlando Film Festival as well as the London Underground Film Festival (who spoke on the jury panel) in addition to an event planner who spoke earlier in the day on the effectiveness of certain marketing possibilities, the key to remember was fun. The business remains important in the scheme and the planning must be impeccable to pull off a good festival but when it runs correctly within its structure, one can sit back and enjoy the ride.

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