With the maverick spirit of Sundance in the rear-view mirror and the grande dame of Cannes dead ahead, the 2010 film festival season is well underway. As high-profile festivals such as Telluride, Tribeca and the Seattle International Film Festivals will welcome audiences with a broad slate of studio and independent films, parallel film festivals focused on the work of African and African-American filmmakers are also gearing up.
Life in the still-recovering economy is especially precarious for black film festival organizers. It’s claimed a temporary (and unlikely) casualty in the ranks of black film fests. But other film gatherings are forging ahead, cautiously and inventively, their organizers working to balance the need to maintain public interest in African American film with the need to stay afloat in an austere economic climate.
It’s the cruelest irony: Black film festivals scattered around the country will get off the ground in 2010, but the Hollywood Black Film Festival — based in Beverly Hills, the heart of the motion picture industry — has been canceled this year, because of a lack of financial sponsors. Called “the black Sundance,” the HBFF has been one of the signature destinations for black film devotees, a gumbo of indie talents, industry professionals and A-list stars since it was launched in 1999. But this year, faced with the double whammy of an ailing national economy and a state economy about $20 billion in the red, the HBFF lights will be dark, with hopes for a happier ending in June 2011.
“At the end of the day, it’s about sponsors, a lot of sponsors,” said HBFF founder Tanya Kersey. This year, she noted, those once deep-pocketed corporate supporters “said they can’t do what they did before. We needed more money this year than we did last year.”
“You need permits and security and parties every night. … It’s always difficult being a black film festival,” Kersey said lamenting the fact that when major corporations do sponsor film festivals today, “they give a lot to the big festivals, those that are not black. So we said, ‘let’s wait this thing out and we’ll do it in 2011.’”
And what’s been a challenge for title sponsors has been even more difficult for the filmmakers themselves, Kersey said. “A lot of people are out of work. Filmmakers may want to come but they can’t pay the entry fee,” she said. “The recession has made everybody rethinking what they’re doing. We gotta do what we gotta do. It’s just been a bad year.”
Kersey said the HBFF’s Storytelling Competition, which focuses on actual readings of promising scripts, would probably go on later in the year, as well as a film finance and distribution summit, and a day of panels and workshops. But the meat of the festival — six days, 125 films and a galaxy of ancillary events — is off for this year. “It’s an expensive festival to do. It’s all about cash, and we’ve never had enough.”
The Langston Hughes African American Film Festival kicks off on Saturday, beginning its seventh year, firming up its own Northwestern presence in a city that loves the movies and doing it this year in good financial shape, positioned to ride out the economic headwinds battering the nation in general and Puget Sound in particular (Washington state is working to close a budget deficit of $2.6 billion).
Unlike other black film festivals, the Langston Hughes is an arm of a performing arts center under the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. “We’re a program of [the center], which is under the umbrella of city government,” said Zola Mumford, the festival curator. “We’re sort of lucky in this economic climate because we do have that connection to the city.” That relative insulation has meant the festival offers the public a contrarian response to the economic situation. “We haven’t raised our ticket prices, and we’ve dropped the cost of our all-access festival pass from $75 to $50.”
“This is what we do as a smaller-scale festival that’s very personable and very accessible,” she said.
The performing-arts center is undergoing renovations until next spring, but the festival is using that temporary displacement as a way to broaden its community reach. “We’re not in our building this year, but we’ve worked out terrific partnerships with local theaters an community organizations,” Mumford said. Films will be shown under the festival’s rubric at various theaters including the Cinerama, a major downtown venue and the city’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI).
“To be frank with you, it’s kind of been in the trenches,” said Ron Craig, founder and director of the PDX African American Film Festival (whose three-letter name is the airport designator for Portland). Craig said his festival, now in its second year, has had to rely more on in-kind sponsorships, an exchange of services that bypasses cash in a tradeoff of services for publicity. When the going gets tough, the tough get inventive.
“When I bring speakers here, I’ll partner with a hotel [for the speakers’ accommodations] and they’ll get listed on the festival Web site,” Craig said. “Once, I needed a chauffeur service. I found one and listed it on my Web site, and he provided us with a 1958 Rolls Royce.”
For Craig, the process of interacting with other black and minority film festivals — exchanging survival strategies, programming ideas and war stories — is another key to success. “It’s obviously difficult for African Americans in film, being at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale,” Craig said. “It’s good to have a network. We might find films at [Seattle’s] Langston Hughes and bring them here. The two audiences won’t overlap. The idea is to network with other film festivals; that gives me an opportunity to see their films. It keeps us fresh as an entity we show some cohesiveness within the arts community.”
Some black-oriented film festivals have weathered the recession handsomely. For Stephanie Rance, longtime entertainment marketer and co-founder of the Run & Shoot on Martha’s Vineyard, it’s all good. “It’s going great. Our sponsors are still the same; nothing’s really changed in that regard. And attendance has been great.” The one concession to the impact of the current economy was made to accommodate festival-goers: “We’ve offered a recession rate, a 25 percent discount on all-access pass for people who register early. That’s working really well for us. People really appreciate that.”
And Rance said the economy hasn’t affected the participation of filmmakers, who are no doubt attracted by the Run & Shoot’s tie-up with a major sponsor like HBO and the participation of advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi. “I don’t think it has impacted them that much,” she said. “We show between 60 and 70 films and a major studio release as well, so if [filmmakers] want to be there, they’ll be there.”
One of the Run & Shoot’s secret weapons is the local population of Martha’s Vineyard, a summer colony that’s become over 100 years a retreat for wealthy black professionals and their descendants from all over the country. “Our demographic’s a little older than at other festivals,” Rance said. “People with a lot of discretionary income come to Martha Vineyard.”
The festival has global clout for one so young; founded in 2001, the Run & Shoot boasts the status of being the only film festival besides Cannes to do a pre-release screening of Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog.”
“The economy has changed everybody’s lives,” said Kali O’Ray, co-director of the SFBFF, a film festival whose woes reflect the social challenges for black San Franciscans. “Things are much more difficult this year compared to before. We’re doing things a little closer to home.” The festival, founded in 1998, had hoped to do more this year with outsourcing to local merchants. “We were trying to hire out a lot of work, now we’re doing those jobs ourselves. People are being a little tighter these days.”
O’Ray said the San Francisco festival would go off as scheduled, “but it’s really scaled down. In-kind contributions could do a lot better. I’m hoping they’ll be a push before we start.” O’Ray was bleakly candid when asked how much festival sponsorship is off compared to 2009. “I would say more than half.”
It’s open to speculation how much the festival was hampered by the death, in January 2009, of Bay Area arts impresario and festival founder Ave Montague, a relentless champion for the festival and Bay Area arts in general. But for O’Ray, a longtime resident of the Bay Area, the accelerating gentrification of San Francisco — a process lamented in high visual style in the critically-acclaimed but poorly distributed 2008 indie film Medicine for Melancholy — is at the crux of the festival’s problems. “The black population in San Francisco is disappearing, so our market has shrunk. The [historically African American] Fillmore isn’t black any more. That’s a thing of the past. This started probably 10 years ago. Now being here, you rarely see yourself anymore.”
The San Francisco festival will fight its way through a tough economic season in a city that saw an employment decrease of almost 5 percent in February compared to the year before, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Last year you could see the cuts hadn’t been made but you could see it coming then,” O’Ray said. “The year before that was our tenth anniversary year … that was a huge year,” he added, almost wistfully.
New York City
Through May 31
Mahen Bonetti, executive director, asked the burning question for a film festival in the cultural Cuisinart of New York: “There’s such a saturation; you can get exhausted,” Bonetti said of the dizzying array of choices available to people in New York at any given time. “How do you stay relevant in that mix?”
The New York African Film Festival offers the 2010 edition of an answer with a broad program of films highlighting life and culture in 17 African nations celebrating their past independence from colonial rule. While the program is expansive and suitably international, the festival is in hunkering-down mode. Her organization, started as a 501©(3) tax-exempt organization in 1990, faces the same challenges as others. “We’re feeling the crunch, certainly,” she said. “Certain in-kind sponsorships we received have dwindled. We’re losing some of the major marketing sponsorships, which really helps midsized organizations like ours or smaller-sized organizations. “You’re looking for every avenue possible,” Bonetti said. “You’re thinking outside the box.”
This year that means more social media everywhere, online and off. “There’s a lot of bartering going on,” she said. “You try to reach out to people who might not have an interest in African films. We’re doing more on Facebook, and using Twitter and YouTube, whatever can get the attention of an audience.” And Bonetti doesn’t discount the immediacy of that old-school form of social media: the leaflet. “We’re reaching out more into the community with fliers,” she said. “We have street teams that stand at subways in the community. You try to get hard copies of information into the hands of people.
“It’s not only going on through the virtual world.”