Don’t write the Asheville Film Festival's obituary just yet.
In the wake of City Council's recent vote to discontinue funding the event, private interests are stepping up to breathe new life into it.
After exploring the idea of taking over the city festival, local filmmaker Tom Anton instead decided to launch his own event — the Asheville International Film Festival — in September 2011. Meanwhile, local actor/event planner Andre Gower is looking at partnering with the city to produce a revamped version of the original Asheville Film Festival.
Council member Jan Davis finds both possibilities heartening.
"There's a sadness to me that it's ending as a city entity," he reports. "But I think it's worked out to the best possible end. We've got people that are interested in putting on film festivals now."
In the past, the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department managed the festival, which has lost money every year since its inception in 2003. Earlier this year, as part of the city's attempt to close a $5 million shortfall in next year’s budget, the department chose to "throw this one overboard," Council member Cecil Bothwell explains.
"They seemed to feel that because they lost money on it, they didn't want to go there," he adds, noting that City Council's Planning and Economic Development Committee concurred. "It seems like there was no energy behind it."
A fresh start
"When we heard the city was thinking of taking it off the budget and discontinuing it, I said, ‘That's a shame; I want to make sure this thing works,’" reveals Anton, whose film At Last won the Audience Choice Award at the 2005 Asheville festival. Anton says he began discussing the possibility of taking over the festival with city staff months ago, with the blessing of Council members Davis, Esther Manheimer and Gordon Smith.
But Anton changed his plans when other officials raised questions about the value of the festival's brand, image and logo.
"I think it got complicated with the city, in terms of 'Well, is there a value to this?' — which I don't understand how there's a value when it's lost money the last six years," he says. (At press time, Parks & Rec had not returned calls requesting comment).
One of the more outspoken critics of handing over the festival to Anton without a more in-depth review was Bothwell.
"The whole main thing for me was, we don't develop businesses and then just give them to people," Bothwell explains. "If we were giving away something for free that we'd invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in and just handing it off to someone, that seemed a little strange."
But that hasn't stopped Gower, a 1995 UNCA graduate who now divides his time between Raleigh and Los Angeles, from putting out feelers. The actor, who’s had roles in a number of TV shows and movies, including The Young and the Restless, Mr. President and The Monster Squad, expressed interest in the festival at the June 22 City Council meeting. And he now says he's hoping to "sit down with the city and discuss the possibilities and options."
Gower already owns Cinema South, a company he started several years ago with the aim of creating the best film festival in the Southeast. And as early as 2006, Gower says he was partnering with the now-defunct Blue Ridge Motion Pictures to create a large-scale event in Asheville, though its launch was indefinitely delayed. He says he met with city officials back then to discuss integrating their respective endeavors, but decided to hold off in hopes a more promising situation might arise.
Gower feels that time could be now.
"There's more than one way to screen a film festival here," he notes. "If you're going to take over an existing event that has a track record, has a market value, has some exposure … you don't want to come in and completely ruin that brand, ruin that value. You want to add to it. … So what we would do is blend, basically, what's been in the hopper on my end for years to what's existing there."
Lights, camera, action
Anton, however, is determined to press ahead with his own private multi-venue event, regardless of what happens with the city’s festival.
"If somebody else comes in there and says, ‘I want to buy it and take it over and do it in November,’ well then I wish them all the success," he says. "I don't know what's going to happen in that respect. I just know that we're going to move forward with the Asheville International Film Festival."
Anton envisons a nine-day event featuring assorted local, national and international films and workshops, with more details to be announced soon.
"Hopefully we're going to have a lot of national attention and sponsors," adds Anton. "We were not trying to distance ourselves from the city or anything. I still want to make this a much bigger venue for local filmmakers and the local community."
Gower, too, says he'd like to use his industry connections and resources to benefit the city. And like Anton, Gower says his vision isn't limited to "three days of small screenings at different venues where local people can go and see films they may not get to see until two years down the road on obscure DVDs."
Instead, Gower sees something larger, longer and more attractive to industry insiders. "The event could help shine a spotlight on what the area has to offer," he says. "It'll put Western North Carolina back in the forefront of the minds of film-production people as a film-production destination, which it should be."
We should be in the movies
If either or both of these events come to fruition, they will join an increasingly crowded field.
Now in its second year, the Asheville International Children's Film Festival is set to offer two weeks of colorful films from 30 countries, as well as creative workshops geared toward kids. The November event has already become the biggest children's film festival in the Southeast.
And Bill Banowsky, who co-organized this year's inaugural ActionFest, reports that the only festival in the world devoted exclusively to the action genre will be back next April.
"We're moving forward trying to grow on whatever success we were able to have the first time around," he says. "We feel really good about being in a really different niche, and we think that Asheville is the right place to do it."
As evidence of the event’s potential, Banowsky points to an endearing recent feature in the Los Angeles Times.
It's the kind of positive attention that both Anton and Gower say their festivals would also bring. "I'm just in love with this city, the mountains, the whole area," says Anton. "We're looking to make a really great destination point in the city of Asheville to have a great film festival."
Jake Frankel can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 115, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.