Entrepreneurs say necessity drives new fest opportunities

In the boomtown that is the current film festival scene, career opportunities are opening for those with an entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for pics.

Take Amanda Lee, who moved to L.A. just five months ago and quickly began carving out territory as a “party producer” for the Los Angeles Film Festival held each June — matching movies, venues and sponsors to create memorable events.

For example, she talked local hot spot the Viper Room into co-hosting, with fest media partner Spin magazine, a party for doc “Century Plaza,” about a skid row Portland hotel. The event featured a live band that appears on the pic’s soundtrack.

It sounds simple until you realize that Lee put together more than a half-dozen similar happenings at hot spots around L.A. during the 10-day fest. In most cases, she was responsible for negotiating the deal with the venue, the liquor sponsor, the media partner and the filmmakers to make sure everyone got what they wanted.

Not bad for a woman raised in tiny Nashville, Mich. — a rural burg of 2,000 without a single movie theater. “You have to be willing to come into this and understand that there isn’t a ready-made template for it,” Lee says. “You have to be organic in your thinking, because every situation is going to be different.”

In her three years on the staff side of the film fest circuit, Lee has made a practice of spotting the holes in an operation and stepping in to fill them.

At the revitalized Santa Barbara Film Festival, where she worked for two years with new artistic director Roger Durling, she noticed while working as travel coordinator that while the fest had created a central hospitality hub for filmmakers and press, no one had been assigned to run it. “There was this gaping hole, so I merged into this new position I created, as hub coordinator,” Lee recounts. “It worked out really well, because the filmmakers already knew me from arranging their travel, and when they got there, I was the first person they saw.”

A filmmaker herself, with some short films behind her, Lee says it’s her appreciation for what the business takes that drives her to do more. “These people have begged, borrowed and stolen to make that film, and I want to make sure they know our goal is the same as theirs — to promote that film.”

Sponsorship development is vital to the health of festivals. Hawaii resident Nancy Meola was able to turn her background in sales and marketing into a position as director of the development team for the mid-June Maui Film Festival. She pursued the role after being impressed by the vision and programming philosophy of the fest.

“I was so turned on by what was happening with the festival, but it took about a year of begging before Barry and Stella (Rivers, the fest’s directors) said to me, ‘Do you want to work for the festival?’ I had lured them into my house with homemade cheesecake, and we finally got a chance to sit and talk.”

Meola joined a staff that includes 80 paid seasonal workers and 250 volunteers.

“Now, I work with sponsors at all levels, whether … local or national,” she says. “It’s networking people together, and finding the people who are a good match with our mission statement.

“Certainly, there are people who want to reach the visitor market, but what they really want to get out of it is the acknowledgement that they’re a part of this tremendous event, so that the buyer will see them in a certain way. And it works that way.”

Outside of festival staffs, various entrepreneurs are creating stand-alone services that cater to the industry.

Jon Fitzgerald, a former director of the American Film Institute and Santa Barbara fests, launched his Festival Consulting Group just over a year ago (at Cannes 2004), and has seen no shortage of business, thanks to the proliferation of events.

“We have half a dozen clients right now that have launched in the last 12 months, or plan to launch in the next year,” Fitzgerald reports. “Sixty to 75% of our clients are festivals in their first year.”

The group’s services include strategic planning and programming. “We do a site visit and ask questions like, How is your fest going to be unique? How are you planning to raise your money? Where is your audience? What should your programming look like?”

Fitzgerald draws on his studio relationships to get prestige pics for young fests, which helps raise their profiles. He recently landed the U.S. premiere of “Crash” for the Newport Beach Film Fest in California, and the offshore preem of “Ocean’s 12″ for the inaugural Bahamas Film Festival. A new fest in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, has hired FCG to handle all programming.

Another entrepreneur, Greg Kahn, makes a business of collecting and bottling buzz. His firm FilmBuzz polls fest attendees for their reactions to movies, then sells the data to sales agents and distribs.

Another company, Without a Box, has made an impact by streamlining the process of submitting films to fests by offering a centralized, one-stop online service that reduces costs and time for filmmakers and fest programmers.

As of a year ago, there’s even a fledgling convention dedicated to film fest professionals, who can attend panels on issues ranging from how to get started to promoting diversity, while networking to find staffers or jobs. Dubbed the Film Festival Summit, the event’s second edition is slated for Dec. 5-6 at the Hudson Hotel in New York.

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