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.
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.”