A couple of weeks ago, while we here in Austin were enjoying the film frenzy that is Fantastic Fest, the word came over the intertubes that CineVegas, Las Vegas' well-respected and much-gabbed-about summer film festival, will put its annual event on hold for 2010.
“Given the current economic climate and the pressures it has created, we made the difficult decision to put CineVegas on hiatus for the coming year. CineVegas has become such a well respected film festival, and rather than allow the economy to affect its level of quality we have opted to put the event on hold,” said Robin Greenspun, Festival President.
While none of the CineVegas reps in attendance at Fantastic Fest seemed particularly eager to go on the record about the festival's woes, there was plenty of tongue-clucking, head-shaking, and speculation to go around. CV is a top-notch event with a great venue (a cineplex inside the Palms Casino), a sexy hometown, some of the best staff in the business, and a celebrity backer (Dennis Hopper). The festival's contraction to five days in 2009 (down from ten days in previous years) even seemed like an improvement and a smart move in a down economy. How could this vibrant and apparently healthy festival hit the skids so quickly?
While much of the conjecture revolved around the lavish parties and apparent "industry vacation" aspects of the fest, the stated and simplest reason for the hiatus is probably the truth: in a troubled economy, corporate sponsorship dollars dry up fast. It doesn't take a financial wizard to look at the festival's four largest sponsors (the Palms, Vegas.com, The District at Green Valley Ranch, and Greenspun Media Group) and notice that they're all in industries (tourism, retail shopping, and print media) that have been hit hard by the financial downturn. There are very few festivals that can run on ticket sales alone, and none of them are of CineVegas' size and stature. Greenspun and the festival's Artistic Director Trevor Groth (also head programmer at Sundance) made the difficult decision to try to weather the storm and hopefully come back with a bang rather than risk sinking the CineVegas ship entirely. It's a disappointing move (especially for those staffers who were laid off) but ultimately a smart one. Trying to put on the same level of show without the same level of backing would spell disaster.
Will CineVegas be back? I sure hope so. In the meantime, the writing is on the Palms Casino wall for every festival that relies primarily on corporate sponsorships to operate each year: it's time to implement (or further develop) your membership and individual giving programs. Diversifying your "portfolio" in this way not only provides a bit of a cushion in the lean times, but it also strengthens your ties to the community and can lead to more corporate sponsorships when times are good. There are a number of good resources out there about fundraising during a recession, but it boils down to tapping into your fan base and offering them something they can't get elsewhere: recognition, exposure to unusual movies and experiences, the satisfaction of making a difference to the independent film scene.
This isn't a cure-all; even the greatest individual giving program won't replace corporate sponsorships, but it's a heck of a hedge against those famine years. The Seattle International Film Festival has one of the most comprehensive and successful film fest membership programs I've ever seen – if you want an education on how to do a membership program right, invest the $55 in a basic membership and watch them go to work.
Be sure to tell me all about your successful new membership program at CineVegas 2011.