What’s next for the Asheville Film Festival?

Editor’s note: Mountain Xpress has a long history of involvement with the film festival; this inevitably places the paper prominently in the story. But it has also given Xpress staffers a firsthand look at the event’s inner workings over a number of years. The following story draws on both those experiences and the perspectives of others in the community in assessing the publicly funded festival’s current status and future prospects.

As awards ceremonies go, the Asheville Film Festival’s Nov. 8 event had its problems.

Film fans: The 2008 Asheville Film Festival, which featured a couple of receptions for film buffs and festival-goers, saw ticket sales drop this year. Paid attendance at the festival was 2,214, compared with 3,810 in 2007, according to the city, which runs the event. Photo by Jon Elliston

It was meant to mimic the Academy Awards, complete with a host and the showing of movie clips before the presentation of a glass trophy affectionately dubbed the “AFFY.”

It was planned as the four-day festival’s last big party, but the master of ceremonies canceled at the last minute, so the festival had to bring in backups. And despite calling out the names of more than a dozen award winners, only a couple of filmmakers were actually on hand to pick up their prizes. Tech glitches also marred the lackluster ceremony in downtown Asheville’s Diana Wortham Theatre, which was twice punctuated by a loud recorded voice abruptly announcing the time over the PA system.

Although the final numbers for the 2008 edition are not yet in, it appears that it may have broken even, says Superintendent of Cultural Arts Diane Ruggiero—in part because, after losing money the previous year, the budget was scaled back to about $70,000. Nonetheless, the event saw slack ticket sales and was hampered by poorly planned publicity.

The festival did have its moments. Although the career-achievement honoree, character actor Brad Dourif, canceled his appearance due to a work conflict, lifetime-achievement honoree and Oscar-winning screenwriter Frank Pierson mixed affably with attendees and gave a passionate acceptance speech about the importance of film as art. The November event also landed two of the most highly touted films on the festival circuit: Slumdog Millionaire and The Wrestler. The festival’s screening of Slumdog Millionaire at the Fine Arts Theatre sold out.

After six years, however, the Asheville Film Festival’s performance has been erratic, with success in some areas offset by assorted problems. That has led some to question the city’s handling of the event.

“My personal opinion is the whole thing has been botched,” says Marc McCloud, who owns Orbit DVD in West Asheville and co-owns TV Eye Video Emporium downtown.

“Over the past couple of years, they’ve made some significant strides, but the first two years the event focused on parties and what celebrities they could get to come to Asheville,” McCloud asserts. “I believe a successful festival means bringing in quality films, and then you build on that.”

Ruggiero, meanwhile, says the city has learned from its experience and remains committed to continuing an event that many see as a perfect fit with this arts-friendly town.

A rocky road

The problems with the November festival started with turnover in the city personnel who organize it. A full 50 percent of Parks and Recreation Department staffers who worked on the event were new to the Asheville Film Festival last year, notes Ruggiero, who assumed her post in January 2008. Another blow came when Festival Coordinator Melissa Porter left her job after the city’s Bele Chere street party in July. The film festival also saw longtime advisory committee Chair Lee Nesbitt step down. The upheaval meant a steep learning curve for new staffers unfamiliar with the details of organizing and promoting the event.

“It was a little bumpy,” Ruggiero concedes, “but from all of that, we learned so much.”

In addition, city staff took over production of the festival’s official Web site last year, a job the city had outsourced to Mountain Xpress the past couple of years. But the site wasn’t updated with new information until a few days before the first film rolled, and it didn’t feature movie trailers, as it had in the past.

The city also awarded an $8,000 contract to local monthly Asheville On Tap to produce the festival’s official guide, which Mountain Xpress had been paid to prepare in recent years. The guide didn’t hit newsstands until the day the festival opened. And though Xpress opted to produce its own unofficial guide (which came out eight days before the festival began), city staff initially refused to release any of the needed information, such as movie summaries and a schedule. After Xpress then filed an official public-records request for the material, they eventually relented, providing dozens of pages of information with “Draft Not for Publication” in black lettering across every one. Meanwhile, Xpress staff was left to its own devices to come up with information on many of the films in a festival funded primarily by tax dollars.

The overall lack of organization was reflected in a decline in ticket sales. Paid attendance was 2,214, Ruggiero reports, compared with 3,810 in 2007.

Still, Ruggiero says she remains excited about the festival. “Even though the planning and marketing wasn’t as good as it could have been, it didn’t affect the quality of the films,” she asserts, noting that the 79 films chosen for inclusion were winnowed from 257 submissions. She also cites the Oscar buzz surrounding The Wrestler (which opened the festival) and Slumdog Millionaire (which closed it).

And despite the slumping economy and the city’s projected budget shortfall, Ruggiero says Asheville intends to hold onto the reins for the 2009 festival.

Where’s the spark?

The problems with the festival are nothing new, says Xpress movie critic Ken Hanke, who serves on the festival’s advisory committee and has been involved with organizing the event and judging film submissions since its inception.

“This is not a new problem,” says Hanke. “Planning has always been an issue.”

Most American film festivals, he notes, aren’t run by a city and have a full-time director. In Asheville, the planning—done by city staff in conjunction with the festival’s advisory committee—typically begins in January or February. The city also contracts with a California-based film buyer, who works on recruiting films.

But the city’s focus gets redirected when Bele Chere—the granddaddy of Asheville festivals and the 800-pound gorilla of local cultural events—rolls around, according to Hanke.

“The minute Bele Chere gets attention, the film festival just lies there and dies,” says Hanke, because of the demands the massive, three-day summer bash places on city staff’s time and energy. To improve, he asserts, the film festival needs a full-time director as well as other elements, such as an airline sponsor to help bring filmmakers to town and even banners for city light poles.

“The town needs to look like a festival’s going on. It needs a buildup,” he maintains. “My biggest bitch is, the festival’s not festive. There needs to be a spark.”

The RiverRun International Film Festival, for example, has just such a spark, as evidenced by its growth and the celebrities and films it attracts. The Winston-Salem-based event marked its 10th anniversary last year. Founded by actor Vincent D’Onofrio and his father, Gennaro D’Onofrio, RiverRun was held in Brevard for four years before moving to Winston-Salem, where it’s flourished. Operated by a nonprofit organization of the same name, RiverRun—which has ties to the North Carolina School of the Arts—has a $374,000 budget for 2009.

“You have to build a broad base of support through audiences, volunteers [and filmmakers],” says Executive Director Andrew Rodgers. It’s critical, he notes, “to have a guiding mission to showcase good movies. Otherwise a film festival can be in danger of being a local tourism bureau’s pet project.”

The Asheville festival’s shortcomings are frustrating to Hanke and a core of local movie buffs. Neal Reed, who manages the Fine Arts Theatre, says it’s important to have a well-done film festival in a town that “everyone knows is an arts destination. People really know and enjoy good film here,” and a festival stretched over a week with multiple movie screenings “could have a real economic impact” on the region.

After the Asheville Film Festival’s first year, the city hired Western Carolina University’s Center for Regional Development to survey the more than 8,000 people who attended. Of the 635 who responded, 388 reported spending an average of $133 per day. Eighty-three stayed in local hotels, spending an average of $119 per day for lodging. Nearly all said they planned to return for the next year’s festival. At that time, festivalgoers’ chief complaint was that many films were sold out.

Film, television and production companies spent more than $160 million in North Carolina in 2007, according to the N.C. Film Office. That’s a 61 percent increase from 2006, but still down markedly from the $209 million spent in 2003 and $235 million in 2004.

AdvantageWest, a public/private partnership promoting economic development in the mountain region, has pumped up its budget for attracting and supporting media projects in the region from $147,549 in fiscal year 2007 to $212,083 this fiscal year.

Time to go private?

Mountain Xpress Publisher Jeff Fobes, a longtime supporter of the Asheville Film Festival, thinks it’s time the event moved from city management into the hands of an independent entity.

“There are two reasons,” says Fobes. “Festivals are specialized and require passion from people who love film; the city can’t bring that, and it’s more than the city can get from an advisory committee. In order to make a film festival run well, it needs a lot of sponsorships, and I don’t think the city has a good track record, or a plan, for raising sponsorship funds.”

Asheville filmmaker Jaime Byrd, who entered a short film in the festival in both 2007 and ‘08, says she believes the city has done a good job in recent years, though she adds that last year’s event “was very chaotic.”

“I believe the city’s had the interest of the festival at heart, and I think they understand what it takes. But I would have to agree that having an independent organization take over the event would benefit the festival,” Byrd maintains, helping it focus on becoming stronger financially while providing more consistent organization.

“Last year, things were changed and moved around, and nobody could find out what was going on online. I opted not to attend a lot of events because of that. Unfortunately, when that happens you will lose people,” Byrd asserts.

Don Diefenbach, who teaches mass communications at UNCA and serves on the festival’s advisory committee, sees the city’s involvement as a positive public service. He believes the event’s educational component—free workshops and panel discussions with industry experts—was the best ever last year. “I think the festival was conceived of thoughtfully and executed thoughtfully,” he notes.

Ruggiero, too, believes a city-run festival can be successful.

“Being part of an infrastructure that plans and has the general support of the city enables us to grow a festival and build it,” she points out. “We’re not going to be Cannes. But in the arts culture that exists in Asheville, we have an ideal community that supports film as art.”

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20 thoughts on “What’s next for the Asheville Film Festival?

  1. AshevilleObserver

    Excellent coverage and analysis, as usual, by Mr. Sandford. He states, “After the Asheville Film Festival’s first year, the city hired Western Carolina University’s Center for Regional Development to survey the more than 8,000 people who attended.” Earlier in the article, he cites, “Paid attendance was 2,214, Ruggiero reports, compared with 3,810 in 2007.” In seven years, the festival has dwindled from 8,000 to 2,214 attendees?
    Is there something to be learned from this? As Sam Goldwyn is reported to have said, “If people don’t want to go to the theater, nothing can stop them.”
    Why did the Onofrios move their festival from Brevard to Winston, and not to Asheville?
    Perhaps Asheville is not the “arts destination” it likes to think it is. Are there any hard data to support the notion that people come here specifically for the arts (as they go to Spoleto in Charleston, for example?
    Mr. Forbes and Mr. Hanke seem to have good insight into the situation.
    Whose brainchild and vision was the Asheville Festival? As with Joseph Papp with the New York Shakespeare Festival or Menotti with Spoleto (at least in Italy) or Redford with Sundance, maybe the Asheville Film Fesitval needs to turn back to the original founder for his/her passion.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Whose brainchild and vision was the Asheville Festival?

    You know, that’s a very good question, and despite the fact that I was involved the first year, I can’t answer it! Someone must know…I think.

  3. Jimbo

    Asheville Observer has it completely right. The biggest issue here is that there is no reality to the fantasy of Asheville being an arts destination. That’s a fine aspiration, but at this point in time, it just isn’t so, no matter how soothing it is to some collective egos to keep believing it.

    The entire festival began out of this misguided notion and the self indulgent desires of the failed Asheville Film Board. Former Mayor Sitnick was instrumental in the creation of this misguided and uneeded board, in addition to wasting tax dollars on the festival as a means to justify this board’s existence. Further still, she and this board are responsible for the creation of the entire Cultural Arts Department which has been a failure and huge waste of city tax dollars. The current Mayor and council continues to prosper this “arts” fantasy and the activities and expenses of the cultural arts department.

    None of this is to say there should not be a focus on arts in Asheville, but if there is any genuine arts community, the initiative would take off easily without an artificial and poorly managed boost from government. Look at the NC School of Arts in Winston-Salem. There is an example of an actual arts destination with something to back up their claim and resources to support the arts. Why can’t Asheville have reality and resources on its side before professing to the world to be something it’s not?

    I think the article is correct, and the film festival must go private to sink or swim based on its own merits. If there is any reality to these arts claims it will do fine. We definitely should not be spending public dollars or other resources on this kind of thing. It’s detremental to the taxpayers and the real arts themselves. In such bad financial times, city government should have nothing to do with funding cultural arts programs, and I fully expect that function to be cut if city leaders are at all serious about fiscal responsibility.

  4. Jeff Fobes

    Jimbo: You underestimate Asheville’s arts quotient, I think. The beauty of the arts (and crafts) activity here is that it’s so decentralized. Grassroots energy has hybrid vigor; it’s just a bit harder to organize.

    Trying to jumpstart a festival with government initiative is a tricky way to organize the energy, but it isn’t necessarily a bad way. While many will say government has no business pushing the arts, they oversimplify the issue, I think.

    Anyhow, as a personal fan of grassroots initiatives, I’m hopeful we’ll see more people-power helping us here.

    Big ideas usually start with someone or some folks with a big vision. Winston-Salem needed the d’Onofrios (who also provided funds, I think). We seem to need a few visionaries to come together at this point. I’ll argue that the visionaries ought to build an independent organization that would eventually control the festival — but also that organization would include the city as a partner because the city has much to offer.

    There are now more than 1,000 film festivals in the U.S. If Asheville is to have one, it needs to have an identity that vibes well with Asheville’s disparate, grassrootsy feel.

    Anyhow, I agree, our tough economic times are calling the questions: Does Asheville want an excellent film festival? Who will help get it there? And how?

  5. Jimbo

    Jeff, I’m with you on the grass roots initiatives. The problem here is that instead of actually having a grass roots initiative, we’ve got groups telling local government to pay for and lay out some sod when there’s nobody around to water it. An actual grass roots initiative begins only when the roots are there in the form of genuine support, consensus, and desire. It does not involve a very tiny special interest group who lobbies for funding so someone else can do it or fund it for them. That’s what we need to move past.

    I’m all for grass roots initiatives. Government and the community just needs to be realistic and responsible enough to let them take root on their own rather than throwing money or poorly managed support at it just because someone asks. The only thing we’re doing is wasting time and money creating patches of dead grass and weeds. This makes the whole community look hollow, unsustainable, and unprofessional just like having actual weeds all over the place.

  6. Ken Hanke

    I have to say that I’m not even sure what the term “arts destination” means. If it means that Asheville has a greater degree of interest in the arts than most places, then I’d say it’s true. If it means in this case that Asheville is more likely to support “art” films, then I know from personal observation that it’s true. The interest in more artistic and less mainstream fare is certainly here — along with the more mainstream fare. It can be clearly seen by local longevity on a number of films over the period of time I’ve been dealing with films here. I didn’t notice it and start keeping track till I happened to note that Gosford Park, which had been selling out here, was closing after one dismal week in Hickory. There are many other instances — Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, Breakfast on Pluto, etc. All these titles did better locally than most places. The key to this, however, may be that most, if not all, of these titles also fall under the heading of quirky. So maybe we’re a “quirky arts destination.” And maybe what the film festival needs is simply more quirk — along with better publicity and a more festive atmosphere. Considering that the big sell-out entry films have included Blood Car, Year of the Fish and Sita Sings the Blues, a strong case for quirk could certainly be made.

  7. Dionysis

    “a strong case for quirk could certainly be made.”

    Quirk is good; more quirk!

  8. Ken Hanke

    Quirk is good; more quirk!

    You know, I may have said it half-jokingly, but it might be very instructive to go over the individual receipts film by film as a way of better understanding what has drawn. It would be helpful in getting a handle on what movies to actively recruit.

  9. September Girl

    The most successful models for film festivals are private. If it’s feasible, someone will take up the cause. Hatch Fest is working on a film festival component right now.
    Let’s get the city out of the business of throwing parties. That doesn’t make sense no matter what side of the aisle you sit on.

  10. Jeff Fobes

    What about a children’s film festival? It might do us adults good as a side effect. I hear tell there’s already some interest in starting such a festival in Asheville.

  11. Ken Hanke

    What about a children’s film festival?

    Films for children, about children or made by children?

  12. Jeff Fobes

    A festival of kids films (whether for or by; or both) could work, even though it doesn’t directly or intentionally address the quirk factor.

    Durham’s Full Frame film festival for dcoumentary films has grown to be one the gems of film fests, and perhaps the best documentary platform.

    Maybe niche is good in world too full of unfocused festivals.

    Let’s see what Hatchfest comes up with, too.

  13. Ken Hanke

    I’ll be honest, I’d have very little interest in or enthusiasm for a kids film festival.

  14. I would be curious to see the state of festivals in general over the next few years. I’ve stated this many times before, but interest and funding for independent movies is starting to wane. The main purpose of these films are to be seen and bought to distribute to wider audiences. If there’s no motivation to make them, then we could possibly see many festivals close up.

    I truly feel that Asheville could have positioned themselves to be the premier film fest in the Southeast, but they blew it. It might be too late.

  15. Ken Hanke

    I truly feel that Asheville could have positioned themselves to be the premier film fest in the Southeast, but they blew it.

    I don’t know that I agree with that, but then you probably wouldn’t expect me to. The problems are certainly there and always have been. The first year in many ways — as much because of its higher turnout as anything else — did a lot of damage. With one exception, the entries ranged from so-so to appallingly bad — with the accent on the latter. This probably lowered expectations dramatically and put off a lot of people. The organtization was haphazard to say the least. Hell, I’d been there since day one and I didn’t even know there was a guest of honor till the award ceremonies. The idea of showing a film in a ballroom at the Grove Park was disastrous. Even if the film had been good, it wouldn’t have mattered because the acoustics rendered it largely incomprehensible.

    The second year saw a slight improvement in the entries and attendance was good, but, in all honesty, that was a bit of a cheat. A lot of people showed up simply because they thought they might get to see Ron Howard, since his father, Rance, was the guest of honor. How many people actually got to see the younger Howard is another matter. But the high turnout on that basis caused what was, to me, a bad shift in focus — or, rather, it caused the focus on the entry level films to be less than it should have been. That, unfortunately, didn’t change significantly until year before this last one when more networking with other festivals and an aggressive recruiting force — thanks almost entirely to David Forbes — came into play. There were still clunkers among the entries (I don’t know how that volleyball movie got in), but the overall quality was greatly improved. That held true for this year, too.

    The problem is that the festival has to make it better known that the entry films have gotten better and are now — by and large — worth coming out to see. Work still needs to be done on weeding out the stinkers. If things hadn’t gone awry this past year, that probably would have happened. An oversight committee was put into place to take a second look at borderline entries, but it wasn’t as effective as it should have been, because it was brought into play too late. That needs to change. There were at least two films that shouldn’t have made the cut — and at least two that would have been better choices. How does this happen? It’s simple and it’s actually understandable. It happens in what’s called pre-screening — where everything gets looked at. If you’ve spent an entire evening watching unimaginably bad movies, it’s easy to be dazzled by even marginal mediocrity. (Marc, you’ve pre-screened, so you know what I’m talking about.) That’s why the selections need to be looked at a second time out of that context. “Hey, that didn’t suck nearly as much as everything else we saw tonight” just doesn’t cut it as a yardstick.

    So very much, however, goes back to publicity and promotion. This has always been a problem — one that reached the breaking point this year. That, however, has its upside, since the festival has — not by design — been so low-key that it probably isn’t too late. In this case, it may be better to be largely unknown.

  16. I know that we’ve been back and forth about this for the past couple of years Ken. We both agree that the quality has gotten better… MUCH better in 2007 and 2008.

    I would like to hear from people in the industry (if our focus is to attract people from the industry). What I have heard is that this festival is a laughingstock, but that could just be hearsay. If that was true, then maybe letting this one die and resurrecting another one in its wake would be a better option. HATCH has some lofty goals, and I am excited to see if they can live up to them.

  17. Ken Hanke

    What I have heard is that this festival is a laughingstock, but that could just be hearsay

    I’ve heard that, too, but I’ve never heard it from a wholly reliable source. In fact, I’ve only heard it from people with an axe to grind — and even then it’s always been couched in them saying that they’ve heard it from an undisclosed source. It usually takes the form of “having heard” that Ron Howard went back to Hollywood and trashed the festival. Is this true? I have no idea, nor do I know where the story comes from. On the other hand, I think it’s safe to say that Ken Russell, Jennifer Tilly, Tess Harper, Don Mancini, Tim Kirkman and John Cameron Mitchell didn’t do anything even remotely like that.

    The point on all this is actually a little on the moot side at the moment. The city says there’s going to be a 2009 festival, so the idea of it going private is at an impasse. At the same time, nothing has been done about 2009 so far as I know. There’s been no meeting of the festival committee and no announcement of one. Right now, I’m completely in wait-and-see mode.

  18. Nicholas Ryan

    The AFF was going great until this year. I agree with the loss of Melissa Porter and Lee Nesbitt the festival suffered. Ever year until 2008 the festival was getting better and better. 2008 was chaotic, and less than impressive. If there is not a change in staff or 2009 I don’t believe there will be a film festival in asheville 2010.

  19. Mikavr

    Who would I suggest an indy film to? I just found this amazing little trailer, about 6 women (all of whom have lost a child) who go to Africa to do volunteer work at orphanages together. It looks like an emotional journey, but an incredible little film. It’s called Motherland, and I have nothing to do with the film, but I’d like someone to see the trailer and see if it’s a good fit with the festival.

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