Plexes languish, but fest screenings pack 'em in

The box office is slumping. DVD sales are slowing. But film festivals keep expanding and growing. In fact, many key fests are building their audiences by leaps and bounds, even as competition on the calendar grows to absurd levels.

From L.A. to Las Vegas, from Newport, R.I., to Sarasota, Fla., various recently formed and up-and-coming filmathons are seeing admissions surge while top-tier events like Toronto and Telluride hold steady at full capacity.

Attendance grew 26.5% this year over last at the Palm Springs Film Festival, held at the desert resort town in January — that followed a 28% increase the previous year. 

Cinevegas, in its seventh sesh in Nevada’s gambling mecca, saw an 11% rise in tickets sold — but that comes on the heels of a remarkable 57% surge in 2004.

Even in movie-saturated Los Angeles, where dozens of niche fests dot the calendar, the burg’s biggest and best-established events are thriving. The Los Angeles Film Festival racked up a big burst in admissions this year — counting 60,000 seats occupied — compared with 45,000 the year before (the number includes attendance at many free events, but paid admission grew 10%). The better-established AFI Fest swelled a robust 14.5%, more than double its healthy 6.1% in 2003.

There seem to be an abundance of reasons why the film festival — for more people than ever — is an idea whose time has come.

One may be that the fragmentation of media in so many areas has boosted the appeal of the fest experience, which offers community, and contact with filmmakers and stars.

“Film festivals’ audiences are the ones who still have an appreciation for the communal celebration of film,” says AFI Fest director Christian Gaines, whose 11-day event unspools Nov. 3-13. “Coming together to see a film is something very much rooted in the psyche of the American culture, and film festivals are where you really get that.”

Growing awareness of the multitude of events out there also might be a factor. “Film festivals have a much greater profile with the general public than they did 10 years ago, if for no other reason than there are a million more festivals,” says Gabrielle Free, of the Toronto Film Festival.

The whetting of appetites nationwide by indie cable channels such as Sundance and IFC has created an ever-larger segment of the public inclined to take a chance on a fest’s diverse menu. “People are more used to this type of material, the documentaries and the edgier fare. It no longer seems ‘foreign’ to them,” says Greg Kahn, president of FilmBuzz, a market research firm focusing on film fests.

But festival organizers are also thinking bigger. “We’re marketing more to the general public,” confirms Rich Raddon, director of the Los Angeles Film Festival. “We try to be inclusive. We have American independent low-budget films, but we also had a ‘Collateral’ event, with (director) Michael Mann showing clips. Then we had a program that appealed to people who are into cartoons and hip-hop music, where the RZA, as our artist-in-residence, spun records to cartoons.”

Sponsor involvement has played a big role in widening the fest’s demographic, Raddon continues. “Target, InStyle magazine, Pop Secret popcorn — the people at those companies are amazing marketers, and they brought their resources to bear to help us reach more of a general public.”

The Los Angeles fest announced at its ’05 closing night that it will relocate next year to the movie palaces of Westwood Village, having outgrown its present Sunset Boulevard digs at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 and the Directors Guild of America. “We think we’ve only started to tap the audience that’s possible for a film festival here in L.A.,” Raddon declares. “This is the tip of the iceberg.”

Bold programming in an area that’s traditionally conservative has helped bring crowds to Florida’s seven-year-old Sarasota Film Festival, which jumped from 26,000 to 42,000 admissions in ’04, then settled down a bit this year. “We’re drawing a younger audience that’s hungry to see adventurous programming and isn’t used to getting that opportunity,” says exec director Jody Kielbasa.

Keen on attracting industry and stars to the resort town, the 10-day event has just shifted its dates to March 31-April 9, from its previous slot at the end of January. “We were finding that with Sundance, Santa Barbara, Rotterdam and Berlin, it was a tough sandwich to be in,” Kielbasa says.

Elsewhere in Florida, the Miami Film Festival is thriving, having wrapped its 22nd edition this year with an attendance surge to 60,000 — up from 50,000 the previous year. Diversity helped: the film program grew 43%, to 86 features and docs, from 53 the year before.

The numbers show that people are supporting the festival, says fest director Nicole Guillemet.

The seven-year-old Newport Film Festival in Rhode Island experienced its biggest growth spurt ever for its recent sesh in June, reports event manager Nina Streich.

“We had more sellouts than ever before, including two or three in our 550-seat theater,” Streich says, crediting Web ticket sales and a fantastic program for the full houses.

“Online sales have made it so much easier for the ticket buyers,” she says. “Before the festival even began, our online ticket sales for ’05 had exceeded our total ticket sales for 2004.”

Glittery publicity is helping attendance zoom at the Palm Springs filmathon, which is heavy on Oscar-nominated foreign-language films and top-tier stars making themselves visible during awards season. “I think the programming has gotten more adventuresome and savvy. But the publicity generated by the gala helps,” notes fest director Darryl Macdonald. “The kind of stars we had the last couple of years — Anthony Minghella, Laura Linney, Samuel Jackson, Alexander Payne — it’s generated a lot more media buzz.” For example, “Entertainment Tonight” did more than a dozen segments on the fest and gala, broadcast nationwide. The fest also got coverage in East Coast outlets like the New York Times and the Toronto Globe and Mail, and in airline mags.

For the 2005 edition, “the vast majority of our audience — about 67% — came from outside the Coachella Valley, including 15% who came from New York state,” Macdonald reports, citing a recent festival survey. The largest segment of festgoers came from Southern California, the next biggest group hailed from East Coast cities like New York and Toronto.

“We get people who want to escape the miserable weather and build a lifestyle vacation around the arts, and that audience is pretty much bottomless,” says Macdonald. It helps that Palm Springs has shaken off its image as a retirement community, and is now seen as a hip, stylish destination.

The surge in ticket sales

doesn’t mean festivals are cash cows. Profit margins from ticket revenue can vary widely, from nil to swell, but most fests depend heavily on sponsors to stay afloat — even a tidy and extremely successful event like Telluride.

“If there were no sponsors, and we had to charge people for what it costs to bring filmmakers in from all over the world and house them, the passes would be $1,500 to $2,000 apiece,” reports Bill Pence, co-director of the nonprofit Labor Day weekend event, which always sells out well ahead of time. (A festival pass now costs $650 for the three-day binge, with an economy version going for $325 and a Patron Pass $3,500).

At Toronto — known in the industry as the mother of all audience festivals for its legions of rabid cineastes — the demand for tickets is noticeably stronger, says Free.

“We had one pass that sold out in 20 minutes this year,” she reports. It was for eight films at the elegant 1,000-seat Visa Screening Room on Yonge Street.

The massive September filmathon, which last year tore 310,00 tickets, has sold out all of its public passes annually for the past seven years or so, says Free, adding, “We’re running pretty much at capacity for every theater for every screening.

“But now, we’re sold out as much as two weeks before the festival begins. The demand is more and it’s earlier.”

Lest this fever for festgoing proves a passing fad, Toronto — and some other fests — are taking care to cultivate the next generation of attendees.

“We want to grow the under-18 audience,” says Free. “Studios are bringing us family films (like “Shark Tale” and this year’s “Wallace & Gromit”) and wanting them to screen in the festival.”

To intro the youngsters to more sophisticated fare, the festival is taking the extra step — required in Ontario — of going before the ratings board to get some 150 of this year’s offerings cleared for under-18 filmgoers accompanied by adults.

The Newport, R.I., fest also is courting the young — with more than just future attendance in mind. The fest has found that youngsters help fill seats at a tough time of day. “We’ve got an outreach program that brings in big groups of kids from the local schools, and some of these are for afternoon films, which is an extremely difficult time to fill seats,” notes Streich. “If you manage to put a couple of hundred kids in seats each day between noon and 4 p.m., that really impacts on your ticket numbers.”

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