From where the audience sits, a film festival seems like an act of kindness—an event thrown together by a local group of diehard cineastes. But as anyone who has ever worked behind the scenes on a film festival knows, there’s a reason why so many positions are filled on a “volunteer” business. Bottom line: Mounting a film festival costs money. Lots of it. From renting theaters to printing programs, every penny counts. And even some of today’s oldest and most esteemed events find it challenging to exist from year to year. Case in point: The Ann Arbor Film Festival.
For 45 years, this Michigan fest has been nurturing new artists to find their voice—and an audience. But in the last several months, the fest has shifted a large part of its focus to finding donations so that the show can go on in 2008. In true AAFF fashion, they’re not going down without a fight. They’ve declared the fest an “Endangered” species and are doing everything they can to make sure they stick around for another half-century—even if it means embarrassing themselves in the process.
MM caught up with Ann Arbor Film Festival executive director Christen McArdle to find out how Sam Raimi and Ken Burns have already helped to make a difference–and what you can do to help spread the word in the final weeks of their donation campaign.
Jennifer Wood (MM): In any given year there are a number of film fests which must close their doors due to the cost of producing such an event. Do you think that brick and mortar film festivals, as a whole, are an endangered lot?
Christen McArdle (CM): Tonight I had an in-depth conversation about this with several film festival colleagues (while at Sundance), and it became clear that there are many filmmakers and audience members who aren’t aware of the numerous costs that are associated with a film festival. Since most festivals are not-for-profit businesses, funding is always an issue. With the market becoming so saturated (there are over 2,000 festivals in the United States and over 6,500 in the world), it is becoming increasingly difficult for festivals to stay viable and relevant. Last month, when Variety listed their 10 Favorite Festivals in the world (the Ann Arbor Film Festival being one of them), they brought up the belief that festivals who have a strong identity and niche are the ones that will survive. It’s an interesting discussion, and I’m curious to see which festivals will survive these next five to 10 years in entertainment.
MM: Since the AAFF announced its place on the “endangered” lists, you’ve raised more than $57,000 toward your $75,000 goal. Why do you think people have heeded the call of AAFF in particular? The festival was founded in 1963, so there’s certainly a lot of history there.
CM: The Ann Arbor Film Festival’s rich history is certainly an element to why many believe that this festival should survive this financially challenging time. Since 1963, we’ve exhibited early films from directors such as George Lucas, Gus Van Sant, Brian de Palma and Kenneth Anger. In addition, we’ve showcased artists such as Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono and Miranda July. The nature of the programming is unique in that we look for the unconventional films that are breaking new ground, innovative in style and execution and artistically-inspired. Forums that take these risks in programming have always been and will always be relevant to the evolution of cinema and the moving image. And to have these progressive forums disappear due to government censorship is frankly… unacceptable.
MM: In addition to generous film fans, you’ve also gotten the attention of some pretty big-time filmmakers—Sam Raimi and Ken Burns among them. Why do you think it’s so important for the moviemaking community at large to pay attention to the plight of your event?
CM: The Ann Arbor Film Festival has a history of discovering new talent and supporting work that lies outside the mainstream. I know that Sam and Ken deeply see the value in this festival. It is a combination of our contributions to cinema history, our determined stand for artists’ First Amendment rights and our willingness to take risks in programming that are the reasons for the incredible support we’ve received. It has been inspiring to see such generous support from the film community.
MM: As a testament to your dedication to seeing the festival have its 2008 event, you’ve developed a pretty unique tactic: Everyone who donates gets the chance to choose an “act of audacity” for you to perform. As if glam rock karaoke and giant animal badminton weren’t enough, the latest round of donations will call for you to lead a breakdancing crew of giant animals in a nightclub dance off, perform the Star Spangled Banner on electric viola at a public sports even or try to kidnap Jon Stewart and hold him hostage until he writes and performs an original haiku. Any secret hopes as to which one wins out?
CM: Since this is up to the donors, there is no telling what will win… But I can tell you that both the Star Spangled Banner on viola and the Jon Stewart quest are incredibly close in the running. Which one do I want? I’ll never tell… you’ll have to just wait and see! Or better yet, vote for the outcome you want!
MM: Finally: Where can people learn more about the Endangered campaign—and how can they donate?
CM: If you visit our Website at www.aafilmfest.org, you can learn all about the censorship controversy, the Endangered campaign, see who has supported the AAFF during this campaign and, of course, vote and donate online.