Local film festivals struggle with finances, venues

Hoai-Tran Bui, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON – D.C. is becoming a less welcoming city for film festivals. Rising venue costs, combined with the growing use of digital services for viewing films, may spell the end for one of the city’s most established film festivals: the International Film Festival, also known as Filmfest DC.

The 27-year-old festival, which just finished its 2013 run in April, released a statement by Festival Director Tony Gittens indicating the annual event may not be able to continue due to rising expenses and lackluster fundraising results.

Gittens’ statement appealed to city officials, the Washington business community and the film community for contributions and assistance in dealing with the festival’s financial crisis.

“We’re letting the public know that this is our situation. We’re expanding our development activities in order to let people know that they can help us if they wish to,” says Gittens, who explains that FilmFest DC receives grants from local foundations and occasionally from local sponsors.

The average budget for the festival is around $500,000 a year, but with expenses of renting movie theaters rising over $2,000 in the last year alone, Gittens doesn’t anticipate being able to afford future festivals. In order to continue Filmfest DC for the long-term, he would need an additional $200,000.

“Many of our vendors, people who we rent spaces from, told us to expect increases next year,” says Gittens, who has worked with the festival since 1987. “We’re very realistic about this. As the politicians say, it’s mathematics. The numbers just don’t add up if we continue in the direction that we’re going.”

Other District film festival directors agree that the events’ rental rates are the biggest expense they have to negotiate. Venue locations are also the most competitive because of the small number of available spaces.

“D.C. has a problem that we have more film fests per capita than anywhere in the country, but we only have a handful of rentable theaters,” says Jon Gann, director of the D.C. Shorts Film Festival. “Because there’s such great demand, often we run into trouble with expenses.”

Each year, Filmfest DC sells an increasing number of tickets, meaning Gittens must accommodate larger crowds with a limited number of venues available.

To help off-set some costs, Gittens applied for a grant from the city for $150,000. However, the grant money was cut to $25,000, according to The Washington Post.

Executive Director and Programmer of the D.C. Independent Film Festival Deirdre Evans-Pritchard has run into similar obstacles, but is intent on keeping her event running.

“We keep going because we know from the number of people that submit submissions to our festivals — in the thousands — we know they are people who wish to be heard,” she says. “And we’re absolutely sure that these are the people who wish to see the kinds of films that we show.”

Evans-Pritchard praises Filmfest DC for “jumping ahead of the game to find out whether or not they’re in a position to go forward” by using the momentum from their last festival to build support.

However, she comments that perhaps the festival needs to respond to the problem in a way that is more adapt to the digital age.

“Film festivals are many in this city, are many in the world,” Evans-Pritchard says. “And they represent an era when films were not so easily accessible to many people. And so it is likely that some film festivals in the world will not continue and some will. I hope Filmfest DC is not one of them, but won’t feel the need to vanish, but maybe they will need to change their format.”

Unlike Evans-Pritchard’s film festival, which recently shortened its line-up to be less draining on its staff and the festival’s resources, Gittens doesn’t want to modify his festival’s current format.

“We don’t want to water down the quality of our programming of what we present. We don’t want to whimper away,” Gittens says. “We don’t want our audience to become disappointed and jaded with what we have to present. We have too much respect for our audiences and for the quality of our events.”

For now, Gittens is using every possible resource to keep his festival alive. He’s looking into internet programs that help raise money for nonprofit organizations and re-negotiating with the District government and the festival’s vendors. However, he says he doesn’t want to hold the festival next year if he doesn’t have the resources to maintain the event’s high-quality films.

“We will mount this at the level that we’ve been able to for so many years and served so many people in a way that they seem to be very comfortable with. And that’s our goal. If we cannot do that, I’m not sure there’s any interest on our part, or in our public’s part for going forward,” Gittens says.

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