Pic events scramble as corporate sponsors trim funding

This article was corrected on January 3, 2002.

Ripples from September’s tragedies continue to wash over the world of film festivals.

Faced with reduced levels of sponsorship and increased difficulty in transporting prints and filmmakers, festivals are looking for ways to trim, whether in the number of days they run or films they unspool. The Sun Valley Film Festival went so far as to cancel its 2001 edition, and others may follow suit.

The most immediate headache is the significant withdrawal of corporate sponsorship, especially airlines. Smaller fests — which rely heavily on carriers to fly in panelists, press and prints — find themselves in a serious bind.

“We recently received news that a major sponsor, British Airways, is closing its Seattle office, so we’re scrambling,” said Seattle Film festival chief Darryl Macdonald. “The outlook is unhealthy, to say the least. I’ve grown tired of having my marketing director tell me that we’re in a ‘challenging’ environment.”

Fest directors, usually among the most upbeat of showbiz types, find themselves pondering cuts in staffing and scope of their events.

“We are scrutinizing every expense every day,” said Roxanne Messina Captor, exec director of the San Francisco Film Fest. “Sponsors are having to deal with how they keep their philanthropic activities going when they’re having to lay off 30,000 and 40,000 employees. So I don’t want to say that this has been an easy haul.”

In the tradition of playing with the cards one is dealt, Macdonald finds himself focusing on smaller sources of funding.

“With cash sponsors, we are going after a whole lot of new local sponsors at lower levels,” he said. “We’ve had to become more inventive and work a lot harder.”

Seattle still plans to run from May 23-June 13, making it the longest American film festival, but it will cut the number of features from the 230 last year to about 180-190, partly to save on shipping costs.

Trimming events

The outlook is even bleaker for Santa Barbara, which has been forced to winnow what had been an 11-day fest down to five days for its 17th edition.

“It’s really tough right now,” admitted Renee Missel, Santa Barbara’s artistic director. “The sponsors are feeling the pinch, and our costs have not decreased. But it’s very important to keep this event going because festivals are the only venue for a lot of foreign and independent films.”

Santa Barbara actually decided on a quality-over-quantity strategy months before Sept. 11, due to the stock market meltdown and forecast recession. Sean Penn will receive fest’s Modern Master Award on March 2.

Missel promises that the upcoming fest won’t be the last. “This is just a bump in the road,” she said. “Giving up the festival is the last thing I want to do.”

For optimists, the news is not uniformly bad. The first major candidate to feel the hurt would have appeared to have been Palm Springs, which runs Jan. 10-21 and normally precedes Sundance. But because the latter is pushed up by a week due to the Olympics, the two fests unspool simultaneously, which would appear to be a major handicap.

Instead, director Denis Pregnolato is stunned at the solid prospects. “I did not feel this way two months ago, but we’re in pretty incredible shape with very strong advance sales, the same number of days and 18 more films — 160 this time,” he said.

“We did lose American Airlines (as a sponsor) after Sept. 11, which was a big loss, but we’ve scored quite a few new ones, such as Audi and Road & Track,” he added.

As for Sundance, the fallout has not been nearly as severe as for second-tier fests. “Corporate sponsorship has met goals, which were up from last year,” reported director Geoffrey Gilmore.

“It’s a bit surprising, but part of the reason is that we’ve never focused on new-technology companies. Some festivals got so much out of the dot-com world that it’s difficult for them now,” he said.

Ticket sales should not decline by more than 10% overall, Gilmore predicted. “I think it’s partly because we’re going earlier due to the Olympics and the obviously unsettling factors,” he added. “I can’t say we don’t have concerns, but some of this has to do with this year’s unique timing.”

Caution remains the watchword.

“Usually, I’m the most pessimistic person around, so I’m very surprised with how well we’re doing on submissions, panelists and sponsors,” said Louis Black, director of the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, skedded for March 8-16. “Knock on wood.”

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