Darryl Macdonald has been conducting sprocket operas since before Sundance, Toronto or Telluride entered the game. Eight years ago, the Palm Springs festival director and co-founder of the Seattle fest wrote a chapter for “The Variety Guide to Film Festivals” entitled “How to Launch a Community Fest.”
It seems Macdonald’s advice may have been a little too helpful. Nearly a decade later, virtually every city, no matter how small, boasts some form of film fest — in many cases, more than one.
“Today, there’s anywhere between 1,500 and 1,600 festivals in North America alone,” says Macdonald. “About a year ago, I ran across an ad for the Kalamazoo (Mich.) Film Festival. I thought, ‘My God, now I’ve seen it all.’ ”
Considering how drastically the scene has changed, Variety asked Macdonald to revisit his earlier essay: What would he do if he ran the Kalamazoo Film Festival?
“Every film festival has to figure out its raison d’etre, particularly now with so many of them,” he says. “You have to distinguish yourself in some way.”
For Palm Springs, the object was clear from the beginning: Then-mayor Sonny Bono wanted to draw tourists to the desert getaway, which would drop dead right after New Year’s Day. Hence, the big event in early January.
Once the idea for a film fest exists, the real work starts.
“In theory, as an organizer of the Kalamazoo Film Festival, the first question I’d be asking myself is, ‘How do I sell it?’ And not to the audience, because that’s relatively easy, particularly in a smaller town where there are fewer entertainment or leisure options, but how do you get a filmmaker or a distributor to want to play their film here?” Macdonald says.
“This comes after all the other questions you ask yourself: How do I get the money to run a film festival, what are my facilities like, do I have adequate projectionists, can I get sponsors for this film festival, can I put together a board, all the rest of that.”
The solutions to all those questions vary radically from one community to the next. For instance, a resort festival such as Sundance or Telluride can lure volunteers from other cities on the strength of its location, but its potential growth is limited by the town’s size. “One of the problems I had in the Hamptons was the lack of available hotel rooms, not to mention the price,” Macdonald says.
Alternately, a big-city fest such as Seattle or Tribeca can expect to earn more than
$1 million in ticket revenue, but likely will have to compete with niche fests (aimed at special-interest groups, such as LGBT or Jewish auds) that saturate the market. “In Los Angeles, there’s one every day for some group or another,” Macdonald observes, warning such niche events can dilute the excitement around major fests.
Short cut to stature
“Nowadays, it’s much, much harder to create an identity for yourself and get film suppliers and filmmakers to take you seriously, because that comes with credibility,” Macdonald explains. “You get that one of two ways: You buy it or you get a lot of celebrity participation.”
He adds, “Money attracts other money, big sponsors attract other sponsors. You have no idea how expensive it is to run a film festival.”
That’s why Macdonald recommends running them only as nonprofit events. After years of finance-related headaches at the for-profit Seattle fest, he established a board there that helped attract new avenues of funding and sponsorship.
“You can take a festival that’s moribund and turn it into something else if you put new thought and new energy into it,” Macdonald adds, pointing to the success of the Utah/U.S. Film Festival, which assembled a think tank of people integral to the independent film scene and became Sundance.
Too often, egos and inexperience get in the way and good intentions die at the hands of hubris, he says. “I saw too many festivals doing the wrong thing: damaging prints, not generating any publicity or theatrical possibilities for these films, run by people who thought the festival was about them as opposed to the films and the audiences.”
But if organizers think in terms of what their particular market has to offer filmmakers and sales agents, good films will come. Eighteen years in, Palm Springs still leverages its proximity to Hollywood to attract top international filmmakers, who can rub shoulders with producers and stop off in Los Angeles for business on their way to or from the fest.
“Whether it’s a big city or a resort like Palm Springs or a small town like Kalamazoo … I think any community is a great place to start a film festival,” Macdonald says.
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