A snapshot is emerging of an international festival landscape in dramatic flux, as festivals of all sizes are being forced to look anew at how they operate.
Last autumn the Jackson Hole Film Festival in Wyoming announced it was shutting down after barely five years of existence, a victim of the economic Darwinism that is sweeping through the industry. Nobody else wants to follow suit, and budget meetings in the coming weeks and months for those festivals that have not already set them are likely to be sober affairs.
'We will see with film festivals an initial increase in ticket sales and strong attendance but a decrease in sponsorship support,' says US festival strategist Kathleen McInnis. 'My inclination is that large festivals that rely heavily on the machinery of sponsorship will have more immediate troubles, but in the longer term the mid-size or smaller festivals are the ones that will get hurt even more.'
Forecasting a 30% drop in corporate sponsor contributions for the upcoming July edition, Seattle International Film Festival artistic director Carl Spence and his colleagues have cut the budget by 17% and secured new funding from a Wallis Foundation grant of $750,000 spread over four years.
The festival will be a little leaner, Spence notes, with the number of features dropping from 250 in 2008 to about 220. Advance sales on premium passes are tracking roughly 50% down, but sales for the packages of six and 20 tickets are about the same and ticket prices and staffing levels are not expected to deviate from 2008 levels.
Coming off a successful 25th anniversary edition in January, the Sundance Film Festival's managing director Jill Miller says the Utah event, with an annual budget of about $10m, heads towards 2010 'in the best state possible', notwithstanding the departure of long-time festival director Geoff Gilmore to Tribeca. Nonetheless, Miller, director of development Emily Laskin and programming chief John Cooper are aware of the challenges that lie ahead and will run the numbers on budget models based on 10% cuts and possibly higher when the budget meetings begin in March.
Laskin said they would be going after new sponsors more aggressively than usual given the current climate and would look to grow the individual donor base, adding: 'Individual donors are sticking by us.' Ticket prices and staffing levels are expected to stay the same, but there is a chance Park City residents may be called on to provide lodging for the army of 1,500 volunteers.
Toronto International Film Festival co-director Cameron Bailey is maintaining a 'so far, so good' approach and reports all major sponsors are due to return this autumn. Bailey, who was in Sundance and Berlin scouting for films, is mindful of a fall in industry attendance, with companies sending fewer staff for shorter amounts of time.
Bailey says there were no plans to cut staffing levels and stressed the aim was to keep the programme at about the same size and stay true to Toronto's goal of bringing 'excellent movies to audiences, that they can't see anywhere else.'
As one of the few for-profit festivals in North America, Tribeca does not have access to grants and relies more heavily on corporate sponsors. Executive director Nancy Schafer says the governing body has had to cut the number of seasonal staff by 50% and admits it has been difficult to raise money. Gilmore arrives as chief creative officer at Tribeca Enterprises in March but his presence will not be felt until the 2010 festival.
'Companies have shrunk their marketing budgets and they're looking for more concrete results for their spend,' Schafer says. General Motors, a Tribeca supporter since the beginning, has reluctantly pulled out this year, along with Target and Budweiser. New sponsors are Heineken and Direct TV.
Bucking the trend, the Pusan International Film Festival (Piff), the Jeonju International Film Festival (Jiff) and Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival (PiFan) remain confident they will not feel the pinch this year. Programmers and representatives from South Korea's three main festivals were out in force at Berlin last month.
They agree support from the public side will not suffer greatly this year, but sponsorship from the private sector may go down. However, they will not know for certain until about two months before the start of each of their respective festivals whether their overall budgets will suffer.
'Our programmers won't be directly affected by the economic situation unless it gets drastically worse,' says Piff deputy director and world cinema programmer Jay Jeon. 'Cuts will likely come from the opening night, which takes up a big part of the budget.'
Piff's opening night ceremony is traditionally a huge affair with fireworks, performances and local celebrities (and their entourages) coming from Seoul for the night, alongside international guests.
'At about $5.7m (won8.7bn), Piff's overall budget will remain about the same as last year's. But because of sponsorship problems last year, we were a bit in the red. So we plan to spend about 5% less this year to compensate,' says Jeon. Sponsorship comprises around 30% of Piff's budget.
'We won't know for sure until sponsors are locked in May,' says PiFan programmer Kwon Yong-min of the July event. 'But PiFan has never been in the red before, and our programmers' travelling will not be affected.'
Aside from the big corporate sponsors and government support, PiFan (Asia's largest genre film fest, which launched the world's first genre-film projects market last year) enjoys a support committee made up of local small and medium-sized business sponsors, which has proven to be an anchor for the festival.
Tightening the screws
European festivals are definitely feeling the chill. Many are cutting costs, travelling to fewer events and employing fewer programmers. Sponsors are becoming ever more difficult to secure. And UK festival organisers are being hit by the weakness of the pound.
The International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) may have secured slightly increased public funding for its next four-year cycle but at this year's edition, there were small drops in the number of festival guests, international journalists and audiences. In Berlin, the Hyatt - the hub of the festival - was noticeably quieter during the first weekend of the festival and European Film Market than in previous years.
A decision is expected in the next month as to whether the UK Film Council (UKFC) will support the London Film Festival (LFF) through its $6.5m (£4.5m) one-off film festival fund. The LFF's initial application was rejected, reportedly on the grounds that, ironically, its plans were not ambitious enough.
'What we had was a scheme which asked how people would sustain themselves, but that scheme itself, and the applications and the business plans, were obviously done before the world fell apart,' explains Pete Buckingham, UKFC's head of distribution and exhibition.
Buckingham adds that, at this stage, it is 'unclear' how the UK festivals will emerge from the credit crunch and where public money will be needed in the future. If sponsorship dries up and ticket sales drop, the demand for public backing for festivals is bound to increase.
Jacob Neiiendam, festival director of CPH:PIX, Copenhagen's international feature film festival, admits to the growing difficulty of attracting corporate sponsors to the April event. He points out that cutting a festival budget is a delicate exercise.
'You can either cut down on the event or you can cut down on the number of guests. If you cut down too drastically on marketing, you have a huge problem because that's what generates a festival's profits - selling tickets,' he says.
Sandra Hebron, artistic director of the LFF, points out that the festival's budget for the financial year beginning in April assumes the same level of travel and related activities as in previous years. 'If we find ourselves half-way through the year and the economic climate is worsening, obviously this would be an area we would look at. It is one of those areas where festivals don't have fixed costs.'
The 2009 edition of the Rome International Film Festival is facing a slight budget decrease, down from $19.2m to $16.6m (EUR15m to EUR13m). However the festival's artistic director, Piera De Tassis, says sponsorship is holding up and insists 'it won't be necessary to take any drastic steps' in terms of streamlining the festival.
By contrast, San Sebastian was on the verge of collapse at the end of last year and its director, Mikel Olaciregui, threatened to resign after public institutions warned they might cut their funding as a result of the financial crisis.
The leading Spanish festival receives about 60% of its budget from state entities - the Basque regional government, the Guipuzcoa county council and the San Sebastian town hall - and the Ministry of Culture. The remaining 40% comes from private investors tied into contracts.
The Guipuzcoa county council announced in November it planned to cut its festival funding by 9% to $1.2m. At the same time, San Sebastian revealed it took a $570,000 hit on the 2008 event, mostly due to the cost of bringing in international stars and installing digital projectors, for which the festival footed the bill.
Although a decision on the council's funding is yet to be announced, Olaciregui and his team have been assured by the mayor of San Sebastian they will receive the same budget as last year and that the 2009 festival will take place.
'But we have still been hit by the financial crisis and in one month I have to present measures to the board of directors to aid the festival and prevent going into deficit this year as we will not receive any supplementary support, and some of the sponsorship money for the festival is potentially going to decrease as well,' says Olaciregui. 'To balance the books we might need to cut down the number of days of the festival from 10 to nine and reduce the number of films in some of our programmes. We will begin our search for films in earnest after Cannes.'
Other smaller festivals in Spain, such as Sitges have also been affected by the crisis, but none have announced plans to pull the plug altogether - yet.
The rhetoric from all the festivals is about delivering the same quality of event on tighter budgets. But if Ginnie Atkinson, the managing director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, is correct in her prediction that 'the bite will be in 2010', the question will be for how long can that quality be sustained'