December 12, 2006

With Mountainfilm’s marketing diva, Daiva, I took in the Third Annual International Film Festival Summit in Las Vegas last week. Vegas, or “Lost Wages” as the airport gate announcer in Denver referred to it, is surely one of the stranger places on the planet. Disney World on crack (and steroids) might be an apt description.

We stayed at The Excalibur. With 4,000 rooms, it could readily house the entire population of Telluride, including visiting friends and family and their pets.

Daiva had taken care of the travel/accommodation booking and assured me that her choice of The Excalibur had nothing to do with the all-male Australian revue that was playing there, called Thunder From Down Under. Hmm.

The summit was good. For someone like me, who has little direct experience in the industry, it was very helpful to compare notes with other festival organizers and managers. It seems we all face many of the same challenges in marketing our events, filling theaters, keeping our programming relevant and vital, and trying to at least break even with what is, too often, essentially a money-losing enterprise.

It is this latter challenge that is of particular interest to me. My primary charge, after all, (apart from taking in the occasional Vegas-type event) is to generate money in sufficient quantity to cover costs that are, seemingly, in almost complete disproportion to the length and scope of our annual festival.

While I was relieved to learn from other festival folk that their costs are, likewise, out of sync with their end product, I probably experienced even more satisfaction in finding out that they, like I, struggle to get sponsors on board; and, once on board, to keep them there.

Along with ticket and pass sales, grants and donations, and not forgetting the odd fundraiser and flogging a bit of swag such as t-shirts and baseball caps (logo-emblazoned, of course), corporate sponsorships are a primary source of revenue for film festivals — at least in theory. The problem is that corporate sponsors are extremely zealous of their cash and are not typically driven by philanthropic considerations. Instead, they tend to be motivated by that much-hackneyed concept “return on investment.”

With a festival, especially a smaller, niche festival such as ours, it can be tricky to prove, in any kind of strictly quantifiable terms, a given ROI. We’re not like a piece of commercial real estate, or a marketable security, or new and improved manufacturing equipment. It’s really not easy, with a festival, for a sponsor to say, “Okay, we put x dollars in and we got x + y out. Divide x by x + y and, voila, ROI is…”

How do we, and the sponsors, deal with this lack of financial definition? Well, for sponsors the answer is often to provide in-kind support in lieu of cash (thus the aforementioned t-shirts and baseball caps). Or they may pressure us to give them added sponsorship benefits that are not commensurate with the dollars that they actually pony up. Or, worse case, with more or less grace, they simply decline the invitation to partner.

For our part, we festival managers wheedle and plead about our extraordinary mission and about the inordinate impact that we have on our audiences. We optimistically overstate our audience numbers and the number of impressions that sponsor logos make on eyeballs. We promise what we’re not sure we can deliver and, in one form or another, we pray a lot.

Of course the real answer to a film festival’s revenue woes were probably staring me right in the face everywhere I turned in Vegas. To guaranty solvency and financial sustainability, what better solution than a heavy dose of neon, nudity and one-armed bandits? I think I’ll take it up with our board. And I definitely need to talk to our festival director Arlene Burns about including Thunder From Down Under — The Film in next year’s program.

Posted by Peter Kenworthy

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