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Film festivals prep for a year of downsized aspirations

Dressing as a furry brown bear and playing badminton against roller derby girls might not seem like a duty of the executive director of one of America's oldest film events. But that was what Donald Harrison did last winter as part of a plan to rescue the ailing Ann Arbor Film Festival.

Billed as "Giant Animal Badminton," the stunt was recorded for YouTube and generated hundreds of new donors to the nonprofit that runs the Michigan fest, part of a campaign that preserved the weeklong March event after the loss of state funding.

Harrison's desperate measures reflect the growing reality of the North American festival circuit. After a decade in which major events ballooned in size and hundreds of new festivals -- from Newport, R.I., to Newport Beach, Calif. -- made splashy debuts, the global financial crisis could thin the ranks significantly. Fests already are reporting reductions in funding, shrinking donations and sponsors and lower attendance.

"Right now times are tough for a lot of people, and some companies and festivals will go under," Harrison says. "But those that survive are going to be the ones able to get really lean, focus on basics, identify what really matters and get stronger."

So far, only one established North American event, the Jackson Hole (Wyo.) Film Festival, has shut its doors this year, and major festivals that also serve as markets have been less affected. However, a sampling of U.S. fest officials indicates broad concern about even well-attended regional and local events.

"Everyone I've talked to in festival country has been affected," says Louisa Percudani, executive director of the Sonoma (Calif.) International Film Festival. She says that she and others operate under the "30%-40% rule," referring to the expected revenue decrease this year.

Many organizers believe the healthy economy of the past decade created a bubble of film festivals, and that a retrenchment was inevitable.

"It seems these days there's a film festival on every corner," says Peter Broderick, a film consultant. "The big issue is sponsorship. As companies are cutting back, what happens to their marketing budgets and sponsorship opportunities?"

The result is that many organizers are being forced to cut the number of screenings, seek less expensive venues, reach out to ardent supporters for more help and bring in fewer guest speakers and performers.

The Seattle International Film Festival, which unspools hundreds of movies over 25 days each May and June, is cutting 12% from its budget "to prepare for the fact that revenue may be down from sponsorships and other areas," artistic director Carl Spence says.

The threats are even more pronounced for fests that depend on sponsors from industries that have been hit hardest by the recession.

"We've had an enormous amount of support from the construction industry, the real estate industry and the financial-services industry," says Mark Famiglio, president of the board of the Sarasota (Fla.) Film Festival, who has slashed his operating budget by two-thirds and tapped fellow board members and his own pocket to keep the event going. "We're in a community where there is an enormous amount of wealth per capita, but lots of those people have gone from being millionaires to being on the verge of moving in with their in-laws."

Many festivals, including Sarasota, count on state or local grants to help defray costs. "But the government here is also suffering a lack of funds because property taxes are getting slammed," Famiglio says.

Even Sundance, the highest-profile fest in the U.S., is tightening its belt. Festival director Geoff Gilmore says this year's sponsorship funds are equal to last year's and screening passes are sold out. However, "the budget of the festival is on a very tight string," he says. "We do not have extra funds to spend on things we might have in the past. We certainly know we're not going to be in the position to bring in some people we might have in past years."

Emily Laskin, director of development at the Sundance Institute, says reports that sponsors have pulled out of this year's event are untrue. But some individual supporters have trimmed their donations.

"I had 30 fundraisers over at my house, and what everybody is seeing is that individual donors will undoubtedly stick with you, but they might give less than in the past because their portfolio has been hit hard," she says.

The Toronto International Film Festival, which screens more films than just about any other fest, was not noticeably affected this past September. But co-director Cameron Bailey says organizers are keeping a close eye on the year ahead.

"We're budgeting very conservatively and not anticipating any major expansion," he says. "This is certainly not the environment for that."

There also is concern, Bailey says, that funding for indie movies might be affected, which could lead to a drop in the number of films available to screen. "Not in 2009, but in 2010 we may see a little bit of a downturn," he predicts. "The financing for films happening now that are being affected by the economy may not run up for another year or two."

In New York, where the economic shock waves have been rolling out of Wall Street, two of the largest festivals say they already are considering downsizing.

"There's no question we will be affected, and as such we're probably going to have to adjust certain things about the festival in 2009," says Jon Patricof, COO of Tribeca Enterprises, which runs the Tribeca Film Festival.

This past year, Tribeca screened each film five times. In 2009, that tally likely will be cut to an average of four screenings per picture. Also on the chopping block are seasonal employees hired for the period surrounding the event.

At the New York Film Festival, "we're looking at whether we should restructure our ticket prices and lower some prices," says executive director Mara Manus, a former Universal Pictures executive who joined Lincoln Center a year ago.

Most important, fest organizers say, is maintaining key relationships with donors and sponsors, many of whom must now pick and choose the festivals they continue to support.

"We've been doing that in the good climate and now going into the tough climate," Patricof says. "I hope."
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