The Big Picture
A successful film festival is made of more than just good movies. From the revenue-generating sponsorships to the work of passionate volunteers, here’s a look at what goes on behind the screens.
Prior to every movie at the Milwaukee Film Festival, a shot of a stuffy, 1940s boardroom appears onscreen. There’s a boring painting of trees above a marble fireplace, boring old men in suits sitting around a table, and it’s all in boring black and white. This movie could be boring. But then the shot cuts to the room’s door, which says “Milwaukee Journal Sentinel” in bold blue letters. There will be color.
Before the viewer has a chance to figure out how that splash of blue snuck its way into the monochrome picture, a craggy-faced old man announces the name of this thing everyone’s watching: “The Milwaukee Film Festival sponsor trailer 2010!”
For the next two minutes and 44 seconds, dozens of corporate logos in neon orange and glowing red appear on the meeting table, the ceiling — even a bald man’s head — as a story of love and murder is told around them. When it’s over, David Wise is grinning.
“The festival has done a phenomenal job with the sponsor trailer,” says Wise, the marketing director of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the city’s largest newspaper. This is the second straight year the paper has served as the festival’s presenting sponsor, and the quality of this trailer — which is screened before all of the festival’s films — along with the exposure it offers, are part of the reason why. “When it comes to sponsorship opportunities, the visuals a film can deliver are unparalleled,” Wise says.
For the Milwaukee Film Festival, treating sponsors well isn’t a courtesy — it’s a necessity. “Without sponsors, there would be no film festival,” says Jonathan Jackson, the executive director of MFF, which attracted 30,000 people last year (50% growth from the previous year) with 192 films that Jackson says emphasize “the communication of ideas about worlds beyond our own.”
THE MFF IS JUST ONE OF hundreds of film festivals held across the US every year. They range from star-studded affairs like Sundance, which annually attracts 40,000 cinephiles to Park City, UT, to quirky, niche festivals, like the Noir City Film Festival in San Francisco. At nearly all film festivals, screenings are merely part of the program, which also typically includes panels and lectures with the common goal of encouraging a love of film. “What we’re trying to build is a cultural institution. Our long-term goal is to be able to make the same impact around film that an art museum does for art or that a symphony does for music,” Jackson says.
Like most art museums and symphonies, the majority of film festivals are either nonprofits or making very little money. Most of the money in their operating budgets comes from corporate sponsorships and entry fees paid by filmmakers, while the rest is made in ticket sales, membership fees and philanthropic donations. As quickly as the money comes in, it’s sent back out, spent on necessities like theater and party venue rentals, staff, marketing and awards. “After paying everything off, I don’t think any film festival is getting anyone rich,” says Jeremy Taylor, publisher of Film Festival Today.
“Raising money is the most challenging thing we do,” says Nancy Schafer, executive director of New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. Founded in 2001 by Robert De Niro, Craig Hatkoff and his producing partner Jane Rosenthal, the Tribeca Film Festival has grown into one of the world’s largest, attracting 410,000 people to 396 screenings and additional free events in 2010. It’s been able to achieve that prominence partly because of sponsors, who account for 85% of the festival’s operating budget. In order to attract new sponsors and keep the old ones coming back, Schafer says, the festival has to provide more than the typical package of a few signs and an ad in a brochure. “If we have a sponsor who’s interested in social documentaries, we might hold some panels around those types of films or ask them to sponsor an award that would really help them bring home their message,” she says.
Charles Judson, communications director for the Atlanta Film Festival, which attracts more than 20,000 people, says giving sponsors more than they expect is one of the best ways to raise money. “For a lot of companies, signage is OK, but we’re always working to find more organic ways to integrate sponsors,” he says. Take, for example, the channel ReelzChannel, a sponsor at last year’s ATLFF. In addition to logo placement, ReelzChannel took over the filmmaker’s lounge. “We set up TVs and [had] their content running the whole time,” Judson says. “Those kinds of things make the festival more interactive and more memorable for the sponsor and attendees.”
For festivals like Tribeca, where tickets can range from $8 for a single screening to more than $1,200 for an all-access pass, ticket sales make up a modest portion (15%) of operating expenses. But for small operations like Shriekfest in Los Angeles, tickets are the main cash source. Founded in 2001 by actress Denise Gossett, Shriekfest is one of the oldest horror festivals in the country. Last year’s event drew between 5,000 and 7,000 people to its nearly 40 screenings, while accomplishing something very few of the larger festivals ever do: It turned a profit.
“The first year we lost a little bit of money, but we’ve made a profit every year since,” Gossett says. That profit came from tickets, which cost $8 per film, and filmmaker entry fees that range from $20 to $50. Because Shriekfest is appealing to a specific community, Gossett says it’s been easy to market. “We get tons of word-of-mouth referrals, and every time we have a press release, every horror website will post it,” she says. “Now that we’ve been around for 11 years, people know who we are.”
WHEN IT COMES TO STAFFING FOR FESTIVALS, MANY ORGANIZERS RELY ON ENTHUSIASTIC volunteers. The Tribeca Film Festival uses 1,500 volunteers a year and Atlanta Film Festival uses around 200. “They help with everything from filmmaker hospitality to putting up posters around town to helping clean up the theaters after screenings,” Judson says. “It’s so important to have help from these people who really love film.”
After raising money and organizing the events, organizers must turn their attention to another critical mission: getting butts in seats. One way they get the word out is by leveraging relationships with partners in the media. As the presenting sponsor of the Milwaukee Film Festival, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal runs dozens of print and web ads in the lead-up to the festival.
The Tribeca Film Festival runs print ads with its media partners like The New York Times and Time Out New York magazine, but it’s an advertising-world partner that’s proven the festival’s best marketing tool: “We’re partners with Ogilvy & Mather [the
international ad agency], and they come up with a new campaign for us each year that really emphasizes New York,” Schafer says. Previous slogans for the festival have included “If A Film Can Make It Here, It Can Make It Anywhere” and “Even The City That’s Seen It All Hasn’t Seen This.” Schafer says the point of the campaigns is to really push the point that “the experience you can have here is uniquely New York.”
While the festivals in Milwaukee and New York focus on print ads and traditional campaigns to create buzz, the Atlanta Film Festival is venturing into social networks like Twitter and Facebook, where micro-targeting can be the difference between an empty theater and full one. “Social media allows us to hyper-target communities that feel underserved. When the right groups hear about a women’s film, for example, they’ll come out and support it,” Judson says.
Filling seats isn’t only in the interest of the host organizations — the cities want it, too. When the Tribeca Film Festival started, it was supposed to be a one-year event that would bring business back to lower Manhattan following the attack on the World Trade Center. The first year was such a success that organizers decided to bring it back each April — and the city is surely glad they did. In the nine years since it launched, the festival has generated more than $600 million in economic activity for New York and brought in 300 million visitors. In addition to the many screenings, panels and workshops, organizers also stage a one-day street fair that attracts 350,000 to a small stretch of pavement in the West Village. “The businesses down there have come to rely on the street fair as a second Christmas,” Schafer says.
Schafer adds that while festivals everywhere are “experimenting with ways to find new audiences for independent films through distribution and online viewings... [the festivals themselves] are still the ideal way to find larger audiences for films.”
Full theaters are a great way to attract more sponsors, which is what Jackson hopes to do for the Milwaukee Film Festival. And he knows just how to do it: “It’s all about the sponsor trailer.”
TAKE A LOOK AT WHAT’S COMING UP IN THE WORLD OF FILM FESTIVALS.
DC INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL
Washington, DC March 3-13
Held in tandem with the DC Independent Music Festival, this event screens independent fare on its way to the big boys like Sundance, Cannes and Toronto. www.dciff.org
MIAMI INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
Miami March 4-13
Featuring movies made everywhere from Cuba to Iceland to Iran, this fest also features free al fresco screenings on the beach and Artopia, an event that blends art, music, fashion, film and performance. www.miamifilmfestival.com
ANN ARBOR FILM FESTIVAL
Ann Arbor, MI March 22-27
Established in 1963, this is North America’s longestrunning indie and experimental film festival. This year will have nearly 200 movie screenings, including animation, documentary and performance-based works. www.aafilmfest.org
BOSTON UNDERGROUND FILM FESTIVAL
Boston March 24-31
Held at Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge, this is the only film festival around that calls itself a “celebration of the bizarre and insane” and awards a frightening bunny statue to its winners. www.bostonunderground.org
TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL
New York April 20 to May 1
Stick around after screenings at this celebrity-packed festival co-founded by Robert De Niro — the director, cast and crew are often there to answer questions. Non-film highlights include the Family Festival Street Fair on Greenwich Street. www.tribecafilm.com
ATLANTA FILM FESTIVAL
Atlanta April 28 to May 7
Celebrating its 35th year, ATLFF is a qualifying festival for the Academy Award’s Best Live Action Narrative Short and Best Animated Short categories. Last year’s event attracted almost 1,700 submissions from more than 75 countries. www.atlantafilmfestival.com