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Learn Logistical Lessons from Planning Film Festivals

By Kathy A. McDonald

An outdoor movie screen nearly flying away, wary city officials, flaky volunteers, uncooperative weather, me-first talent and their entourage—all in a day’s work for a film festival organizer. Add the budgetary constraints inherent to nonprofit organizations, and we can all respect the logistics, planning and sheer amount of work that goes into these multiday, multivenue cultural events, often spread out over one or more municipalities. Producing a major film festival is a challenge on every level.

“With so many moving parts, it takes a year to plan eight days,” says Todd Quartararo, co-founder and director of marketing for the Newport Beach Film Festival. In 2014, its 15th year, the festival had a program of 400 films from 40 countries and attracted about 55,000 attendees. In addition to movie screenings, the festival produces a major social event each day, from the opening gala for 3,000 to the awards brunch that takes place on a yacht. Small wonder that even before the 2015 festival opening night, planning had begun for 2016.

Event planners of all stripes can learn some practical tips from the industrious and creative people behind the screens and galas at California’s film festivals.

Show me the Sponsors

Sponsors underwrite most of a festival’s components—screenings, travel for international filmmakers, and almost every bite and sip served. With sponsorship critical to operations, festival organizers learn to be pros at outreach, whether it’s calls to local restaurants for event catering or seeking out automakers for a fleet of luxury vehicles to shuttle talent. But sponsors aren’t writing blank checks; reciprocity is essential. “Gone are the days when sponsors just give funds,” says Quartararo. “We’ve learned the importance of our spon- sors and really take care of them.”

Every relationship, he says, begins with a conversation to clarify the sponsor’s goals. Far from being cookie-cutter, sponsorship pack- ages are created to match objectives—and a bank’s objectives are far different from those of a liquor donor. Campaigns are also integrated into the build-up to a festival. For example, throughout the month before the Newport Beach Film Festival, the event’s 60-plus restaurant partners are involved in cross-promotions that publicize the festival’s upcoming dates; restaurants have visibility on printed materials, signage and across online sites.

Brenda and Marc Lhormer, co-founders and co-directors of the Napa Valley Film Festival, have created an ambitious program for the 5-year-old festival. Activities encompass four towns (Napa, St. Helena, Yountville and Calistoga) across 30 miles. Last year, 127 films were showcased at various venues, including some pop-ups, and in an embrace of the region’s main industry, screenings were paired with wine tastings.

“We knew that integrating food and wine would make the film festival experience a richer one for attendees,” says Brenda, who began her career as a Silicon Valley corporate event planner. The Napa Valley Film Festival works with 30 different restaurant partners, 150 winery partners and 50 chefs. Highlights include a culinary stage where local and internationally known chefs lead cooking demonstrations and seminars and a wine pavilion that offers daily tastings from boutique wineries.

People Skills Before launching the film festival, the Lhormers took the time to get to know the personalities and politics of the four municipalities that host festivities. Although there are still some hiccups (the Calistoga fire department’s annual pancake breakfast fundraiser banner trumps the film festival’s), what Brenda calls the “operationally intensive” event has garnered the support of local hotels, restaurants, wineries and governments. (Festival board members include vintners and hotel executives; Newport Beach Film Festival’s board also includes a city representative.)

Attendance has grown each year; 10,000 people attended the 2014 festival. Even more impressive is that the growth was achieved with very little in the way of a promotional budget. “I’m confident in our operations and programming,” Brenda says, “but how do you spread the word with limited marketing dollars?” The solution: a mix of old and new tactics. “Social media is important,” Brenda says, “but it only goes so far.” Good old-fashioned outdoor advertising through billboards, signage on buses and ad-wrapped buses has been a key marketing tool. And building on customer loyalty, programs like bring-a-friend price incentives have been a popular way to expand the festival’s audience.

The Napa Valley Film Festival (NVFF) has learned to focus its marketing energy on its prime demographic: women ages 40 to 70. “We’re constantly looking for fresh ways to reach that audience,” says Brenda. To track ticket buyers and film festival pass-holders, the festival uses a custom database program, which can pinpoint what a buyer— from patrons to rush-line ticket buyers—has purchased. That information can be valuable in retaining customers and, potentially, encouraging them to increase their patronage. “We’re always learning how we can use technology more intelligently to track our customer,” Brenda says.

Smart technology is also key to operations. Brenda likes’s customizable CRM (customer relationship management) software. It provides, she says, “a really robust database” that tracks letters of agreement for every vendor, venue, marketing partner and media sponsor. The NVFF volunteer director uses Shiftboard, real-time online scheduling software program that’s used by Newport Beach and the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

Showing Love to Volunteers

With minimal budgets for paid staff, festival planners count on their devoted volunteers. Helen Du Toit, artistic director for Palm Springs International Film Festival’s (PSIFF), says the festival relied heavily on its 800-strong volunteer corps during its run that showcased 196 films from 65 countries in January 2015. “Managing 800 volunteers is a staggeringly challenging job,” she says. “There are sub-captains who oversee smaller groups and then other sub-captains. It’s a very well-oiled machine.”

Finding the appropriate assignment for volunteers (many are retired captains of industry or former executives) is challenging, as there are certain jobs considered more glamorous and everybody brings something to the table, says Du Toit. Coveted spots include working the opening weekend gala’s red carpet (graced by Academy Award hopefuls) or staffing the filmmaker and industry hospitality suite at the Renaissance Palm Springs Hotel.

“There are certain shifts that are harder to fill, but not everyone is suited to everything,” says Du Toit. To ensure that volunteers are matched properly with their tasks, the festival clearly details job descriptions and responsibilities on its website, where volunteers log into Shiftboard. For each four- to five-hour shift worked, volunteers receive a voucher to attend a film screening or panel of their choice.

Despite the many nonglam duties, the festival’s volunteers are often deeply committed and many return annually both for the films and the social experience. One New York couple has volunteered throughout the PSIFF’s 26 years; their story is captured in the documentary Twenty-Five Palms, which looks at PSIFF on its 25th anniversary and was shown at this year’s festival.

“It really takes a village to produce a festival,” says Newport Beach festival’s Quartararo. More than 500 volunteers staff the festival; they must attend a spirit-building orientation session and wear logo T-shirts when on duty. Additionally, 30 to 50 college interns aid the administrative staff (composed of volunteers and paid staff). In a novel approach to landing committed volunteers and fostering future event planners, Newport Beach co-founder Gregg Schwenk has taught a class at Cal State Fullerton on film festival event planning— students get real world training and hands-on learning as they plan an event around a specific film genre for class credit.

Scrambling for the Right Space While festivals utilize many of the same theater venues and event locations every year, pop-up temporary spaces are often ad hoc, such as the tented industry and filmmaker lounge built atop the parking structure at L.A. LIVE for the Los Angeles Film Festival. For San Francisco International Film Festival Operations Director Gyllian Christiansen, finding a space to host the festival headquarters/filmmaker lounge near Japantown’s Sundance Kabuki Cinemas is an annual hunt, one made more difficult by the current realities of San Francisco’s highly competitive real estate market.

Locating the festival lounge can’t be brokered that far in advance because the facility is only needed for six weeks. The intent is to showcase an empty space, one that by necessity is close to the Sundance Kabuki. Previously, the festival used a vacant Blockbuster Video store; once transformed, there was room to spare, escape nooks and space for karaoke night. “It gives landlords an opportunity to show people a space in a way they might not have seen it before,” Christiansen says.

In reality, the footprint of the festival is not decided until about 10 weeks out and depends on the events. “While it has its adrenaline and stress, it’s a challenge I’ve come to understand and it’s why we maintain relationships throughout the entire city,” Christiansen says. She spends a lot of time looking for novel event spots because there’s an excitement in introducing audience members and sponsors to new spaces.

Now in its 58th year, the San Francisco Film Festival is the oldest continuously run festival in the Americas. The city and its residents are vested in its success. “People want to help us,” Christiansen says. In 2014, she selected The Chapel in the Mission for the closing-night party. (The recently renovated music venue was once a mortuary.) “Parties have different capacities, and we want every party to feel different,” she says. Smaller, more intimate spaces lead to more inter- action and more connections—all-important for entertainment industry networking.

Constantly improving and enhancing the festivalgoer’s experience to give attendees ample rea- son to return is a mandate across the board. The San Francisco festival added an outdoor screening; in 2014 it was outside the Exploratorium’s new location, right on the bay, and the film was director Jeremy Ambers’ Impossible Light, a documentary on the Bay Bridge’s illumination thanks to artist Leo Villareal’s light sculpture, The Bay Lights, composed of 25,000 LED lights, in view of cinemagoers. When the wind picked up quite violently, four people had to hold down the rigging for the temporary screen.

But in the end, Christiansen recalls, it was a beautiful and much more meaningful showcase. “It taught people what a labor of love The Bay Lights are,” she says. Indeed, the same could be said for California’s film festivals.