Regional film festivals facing a crisis in 2022: here’s how to help

Sundance isn’t the only cinematic entity facing pandemic-era issues. Here’s what to do.

There’s trouble in Park City, with a capital T and that rhymes with C that stands for COVID. (Sorry, but I’m dying to see the new “Music Man” on Broadway.) The cancellation of this year’s in-person Sundance Film Festival created a lot of headaches — complaining about non-refundable condos and plentiful passes – but in its shadow lies another, far greater disappointment that has the ability to undermine regional film festivals and the bodies that support them.

As part of the federal government’s US bailout to help economic recovery from the pandemic, the National Endowment for the Arts received grants to support the operating costs of arts organizations. Nearly 600 film festivals and organizations applied for the competitive grants, offered in increments of $50,000, $100,000 and $150,000. This week, the rejection letters started coming in.

I don’t expect Netflix to lose any sleep over the skeletal crews that run beloved local festivals from Seattle to Philadelphia, where nonprofits struggle to make rent and retain staff. . However, audiences who want entertainment choices that go beyond algorithms should be careful. Community and quality are hard to quantify in the film world and require keen programming instincts to serve. If you’re tired of the more obvious home viewing options, your local festival has your back. Smart, committed moviegoers depend on small-scale festivals as much as heavy hitters.

And the government cannot help them all. As the NEA form letters indicate, only seven percent of the more than 7,500 applicants received funding. The NEA has asked funded organizations not to reveal their status until a later date; a representative from the government body said the recipients would be announced “later this month”.

“We understand that this is disappointing news, especially in light of the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose to the nation’s arts community,” the NEA wrote to the contestants. “We recognize that tremendous effort goes into every application, and that your organization and many others are working diligently to keep staff and artists paid, doors open, and the arts central to our daily lives.”

The grants on offer don’t sound like life-changing sums — they range from $50,000 to $150,000 — but we’re talking about nonprofits where a programming initiative that puts them in the black of a few thousand dollars is a winning case study. Meanwhile, Art House Convergence – the annual gathering of independent exhibitors who gather ahead of Sundance – has been postponed for a second straight year as its beleaguered organization eyes an ambitious restart by the end of 2022.

Like the scrappy artists these organizations curate, these lo-fi entities thrive in survival mode. The current circumstances are much closer to the crisis. Americans for the Arts reported that pandemic-related layoffs and closures cost the arts sector nearly $14 billion in 2020. Virtual events have attracted many quarantined moviegoers, but that effect has begun to wear off. ‘erode. At the recent FilmEx online conference last week, several regional festival executives observed a drop in interest in virtual screenings and events — not that they generated much profit in the first place.

Most nonprofit film organizations don’t view money as a primary metric; they measure success by their ability to create and curate programming that engages local audiences. It’s a business model that doesn’t operate on the same plane as Sundance’s multimillion-dollar deals, but without the support of these humble organizations, it’s hard to imagine a future for movies beyond the tentpoles. .

Among those not selected by the NEA are Film Pittsburgh; executive director Katherine Spitz Cohan said she plans to use the grant for two of her film programs: “Teen Screen,” a free educational field trip program for middle and high school students, and ReelAbilities Pittsburgh, a film festival focusing on people with disabilities.

“We hope to continue presenting both programs,” she said. “They are unique and well received in our region. We are able to do this because we have the generous and longstanding support of several foundations here in Pittsburgh. She added that the NEA is supporting the organization through additional arts funding to the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Another disappointed party was The Luminal Theatre, a nomadic programming entity that curates black cinema for festivals in addition to year-round programming nationwide. “Although we were rejected for the ARP grant, which is heavy, the NEA has been good to us in terms of a previous grant and the handling of it all,” curator Curtis John said. “We’re still planning for the release of ’22.”

He plans to hold the Caribbean film series in person at BAM in February, but said the rejection of the grant makes “even half-dreamy planning almost impossible”. It had some success hosting virtual short film programs last year, but less so for feature films. “For first-run indie films, our arthouse friends have higher marketing budgets and sometimes larger playlists, so they’re more successful than us with those films,” John said.

In December 2021, Sundance quietly agreed to serve as AHC’s fiscal sponsor for the next year. Emails circulated this week among members of the “Art House Transitional Convergence Task Force” regarding the creation of a board of directors that will be responsible for incorporating the organization as a separate 501c3. from Sundance.

“We’re trying to develop an ecosystem that will celebrate and elevate films that tell the stories of people whose stories haven’t been told,” said AHC Transition Committee member Camille Blake Fall, who also sits on the board of directors of Maryland Film. Festival. “It will now operate through the lens of equity, inclusion, diversity and attempt to help urban arts and essays truly center voices that have not been centred.”

A presentation at Art House Convergence 2018

For a few years I attended the Maryland Film Festival’s “Filmmakers Taking Charge” day-long event, a fascinating unofficial gathering for filmmakers largely working outside the studio system to exchange information. Filmmakers looking to move beyond the hope of selling a movie for millions at Sundance and signing a studio deal need more opportunities like this. In the process, audiences who want to be engaged by more than the biggest blockbusters will turn to local festivals for guidance. These viewers don’t need to number in the millions to make a difference.

This nuance – how small, locally engaged audiences are supporting the future of cinema – gets lost in larger conversations about how movies are resonating in the marketplace.

In last week’s column, I argued that VOD was a critical factor in keeping films unconventional; some industry readers took issue. “Award-hunting aside, major SVODs are apparently turning their backs on true independent films,” one specialist distributor wrote to me. He noted that weekly VOD viewing charts illustrate how “big SVOD players often walk away from smaller independents after flirting with them when they’ve grown their viewership and increased their viewership.”

Fair enough. Those numbers, however, only tell part of the story of what an engaged arthouse audience looks like in 2022. Sundance’s slate of some 80 feature films is small and exclusive; where are the countless other films going and audiences wanting more? Watching a FilmEx panel on virtual marketing, I was struck by a comment from Mel Rodriguez, who runs the Horrible Imaginings Film Festival supported by San Diego’s Media Arts Center. “What do we offer that Netflix doesn’t? ” He asked. “We need some elements to be exclusive and some to be an event as well as a bit of flexibility because people at home just don’t watch movies the same way they do in the cinema.”

Much of the tone at FilmEx was the kind of rah-rah community celebration that nonprofits tend to tout in defense mode. Eventive, sponsor of FilmEx, which many regional festivals use as a screening platform for virtual programs, welcomed more than 3.5 million unique visitors last year. “This thirst for community grows as we move into this new normal of hybrid festivals, virtual events, bringing these things together,” said Eventive co-founder Iddo Patt.

That hunger may also diminish in the face of pandemic fatigue and a million streaming options. Major streamers like Netflix and Amazon have backed Sundance, Toronto and Telluride, but the real support system for an independent film culture comes from individual commitment. Even Netflix and its ilk benefit from discovering unique works with the potential to go far. Funding entities could consider how even a very modest contribution goes a long way toward meeting the needs of smaller festivals.

It reminds me of the grassroots activism of an election year, when even the smallest engagement — in this case, engaging with a series of local screenings one film at a time, or even just subscribing to the newsletter of a film company – makes a difference. These niche organizations promote micro-budget filmmaking and thought-provoking visions. It’s time to step up, moviegoers: what are you doing to support your local film programming? The answer to this question matters more than you think.

Of course, I could fall into the same naïve trap of any organization that places too much emphasis on community engagement rather than more specific business solutions to its problems. As usual, I encourage readers to give me feedback, fix the record, or suggest other strategies…or call me an idiot, as long as you can confirm: [email protected]

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