Debriefing the Film Fest

Dubai-Filmfestival-2010

So, last post, I mentioned that my week was not being kind to me.  It was shaking me down for time like a mobster to a dry cleaning store.  There was a reason for that.  For the past while, I’ve been working on a pretty large project.  Getting together a film festival.  Last week, and over the weekend, it happened.  It took a lot of time, a lot of labor, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but it happen.  Although, in retrospect, the blood, sweat, and tears swimming pool was probably less of an attraction than I’d initially expected.  We could have done without that.  Still, I devoted a large portion of my life to pulling off this film festival, and now it’s done with.  That’s good!  But since it put so much of myself into it, even now, the festival’s still riding on my mind, so I wanted to take the opportunity to mentally put this stuff to rest by writing bits of my experience out.  Care to join me?

Unfortunately, our film festival was nowhere near as sexy as the picture above.  We’re still a very young festival, only in our second year, hosted in a small, rural location in a quiet mountain community.  We had booked one of the largest auditoriums in the area, and we could still only seat a few hundred people per showing without getting the fire department saying some very nasty things about us.  We’re a small event, is what I’m saying.  Still, that’s not entirely a bad thing.  We get enough people in that it’s worth us to show the films, worth the filmmakers screening the films, and worth the community to learn a bit of culture.  Trust me, that last one?  We need it here.

Anyways as a small operation, we have a pretty small team.  Last year we had about sizeable group managing the project, each taking up a different part of the duties and making sure the thing went off without a hitch.  This year?  Less than half of that.  We had the same amount of work to do, but with far less people to do so.  We did have a team of volunteers to help review films and work at the festival itself, but all the prep, organization, and heavy lifting?  Done by a fairly small committee.  That did have its benefits.  Last year we had the problem in that we just weren’t organized.  People were just taking whatever tasks they wanted, which left some areas with way more people than they needed, and some weren’t covered at all.  We ran a far smoother ship this year.  On the other hand… yeah.  Everyone was doing at least 2-3 different jobs.  FWhich, considering I was supposed to be doing this on a volunteer basis was a bit much.  I am really, really glad my employer was one of the sponsors of the event, because if they didn’t bend the rules and let me take care of this stuff on work time, I never would have been able to get through it.  We desperately needed another 2-3 people joining us on this project, just to take the load off of us.  I burnt out on it a couple of weeks before it actually started, and I can’t imagine I was the only one.

I’ve handled finances before for a wide variety of projects.  This was the first time that I’ve done so with a committee that wasn’t run by people with a lot of business/project management experience, however.  And that flipped things way the hell on its head.  One of the first things I learned this year is that I had to play the finances really close to the chest.  Money’s a powerful thing.  Money can change people.  Last year’s festival, we built it up from scratch.  This year’s festival, we had resources.  And that stuck in people’s heads.  I don’t normally like to keep people in the dark about what we’re able to do, but I had to this year.  Basically myself and the board of the festival’s parent organization were the only ones with a complete idea of the budget, everyone else had to be kept mostly in the dark.  Which, honestly ended up working out rather well.  The board was relatively flexible to what people wanted, but it did mean that they had to work out reasonable costs, what they think they could get approved rather than spending all of the money forever.  Things actually worked a bit more smoothly the less people knew of the total budget, which was quite the opposite of what I thought would actually happen.

Marketing was probably the biggest responsibility leading up to the festival, at least on my plate.  I was getting word out there pretty much every way I could think of.  The most effective marketing ended up coming from a pretty surprising source, however.  We got our program guides printed a week earlier than I expected, so I decided to use the extra time and get those out there with all the rest of the material.  And that probably got more people there than anyone else.  Everywhere I dropped them off with ran out.  Everyone I talked to about the festival left with a program.  I barely had enough for the festival itself.  It makes sense, telling people they can watch some cool films is one thing, but telling them they can watch these cool films is another.  Still, printing the programs was one of our biggest expenses, and I had thought that dollar for dollar, we’d be getting more worth elsewhere.  Nope, the festival programs probably brought in more people than any 3-4 marketing techniques combined.    Newspaper, radio, online ads, none of that worked so well as talking to people and handing them little pieces of paper stapled together.  Who knew.

One big revelation that I had already kind of suspected: the place I live is full of uncultured boors!  One thing that really seemed odd to me is that a lot of people wanted to live in the type of place that has a film festival more than they actually wanted to go to a film festival.  We’re still not big enough to be able to run the whole event off of our profits, so we have a lot of community groups and organizations providing grants and sponsorships, simply because they want the festival.  I sent all of them free festival passes as a thank you.  Not one of them got used.  And I should have expected it, but most of the locals were really only interested in films that affected them.  The two screenings I considered to be the best, most powerful ones were also the least attended.  The ones with the highest attendance were generally lighter, more surface-level stuff that were either made by local filmmakers with lots of connections or were made about local matters.

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6 responses to “Debriefing the Film Fest

    • Thanks! Yep, that’s pretty much how it went down. Once the festival got going, it actually turned out pretty well, and I’m proud of what we got together, but yeah, getting up there was quite the challenge.

  1. We just finished a 2nd year film festival with all new people except the program director, PR and founders. I smiled while reading your post — it rings so true and I wished I had read it earlier as I’m sure you are right that the program was a great marketing tool! Thanks for sharing. Lori

    • Yeah, the program guide seemed to draw in a lot more people than anything else we did. Radio ads, posters and fliers, online postings, none of them seemed to get the kind of penetration that the programs did. Hey, thanks for reading. And good luck with your third year in the film festival, if you’re going for it.

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