After reading a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter outlining a grim economic future for film festivals, any doubt that I had about the way in which the economic downturn might impact my work at the Sarasota Film Festival has come into quick focus; since arriving in Sarasota last Saturday night, I have been working harder than ever before on the festival and, while I expect that this year's event will be every bit as excellent as in years past (with a lot of possibilities still working themselves out), it has been a true eye-opener to move from the relative comforts of Brooklyn and into the eye of the economic storm.
Sarasota is a city built upon real estate and retirement wealth and the economic downturn this past year has had a devastating impact on the local economy; Home values have plummeted and individual savings, especially among recent retirees, has taken a massive beating. Sarasota even had it's own Bernard Madoff-style Ponzi Scheme; a local investment manager (and I use the term loosely) named Art Nadel is accused of running a $350 million dollar Ponzi Scheme of his own, and 75% of that lost money has come from individual investors in here in Sarasota. And not just investors, arts patrons; many of the people who have given generously to arts groups like ours over the years are out over a quarter of a billion dollars. Throw in stock market losses and the housing collapse and you see that every single business in town, every potential sponsor, every ticket buying film lover-- everyone-- is hurting. The result has been absolutely brutal on non-profits here; The city's Arts Day Festival was cancelled, the Reading Festival closed its doors, and attendance and donations appear to be down all over the area.
In the midst of this crisis, our festival has undergone a change in leadership, has re-staffed with new seasonal employees and has faced the grim reality of re-budgeting, line by line, trimming away every item, reducing ticket prices, costs, expenditures. At first, I felt a little sense of outrage that our growing organization was being forced to tighten its belt, but now, it's clear I was just being precious. In the wake of the reality of what is happening here and all over the country, it's a little bit hard to gripe about the economic impact on a film festival, any film festival. Still, I take my work very seriously, and we've been doing a lot of heavy lifting here to make the festival go. To be honest, while its been exhausting for everyone involved (the elbow grease is visible everywhere), it is clearly a luxury to work on and care about film and filmmakers in the face of this terrible situation.
Which is why I am so excited and proud about what has been accomplished so far; we've used this crisis (and it is a real crisis here) as an opportunity to re-think the entire event, to find new partners and explore new ideas, to try all sorts of new things. While our festival will still look pretty much the same to the casual observer, I can't wait for our March 11th press announcement to outline what we have planned. It is going to be kind of exciting to stare this problem squarely in the eyes and move forward, step by step, in the hopes we can provide some fun and excitement for Sarasota, our friends in the industry and our visiting filmmakers. We have been promised the full support of our Board, and taking it all on good faith, I am hopeful for a great year in Sarasota when we open the Film Festival on March 27, 2009. If you want to join us here, this city and our festival could use your support. The door is always open.