As the Film Festival calendar heats up, Sandy George investigates what it costs to get a major film event off the ground.
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29 Mar 2012 - 11:22 AM  UPDATED 29 Mar 2012 - 11:22 AM

Finding and securing just the right range of films is crucial to the success of any film festival but securing the resources needed to stage these film feasts can be just as challenging.

When organisers of Australia's major state-based film festivals talk about costs they use such words as “precarious”, “difficult” and “challenging” because it is a juggling act to make the books balance once patrons have thrown their dog-eared programs in the recycling bin or tucked them away for future reference.

“Festivals are about people seeing as many films as they can so you have to keep prices low,” said Sydney Film Festival (SFF) chief executive Leigh Small about the sensitivities around ticket pricing. Festivals also need to be all things to all people, which means including niche and commercial fare, and capacity can limit revenue, she adds.

Just like in 2011, the gorgeous 2,000-seat State Theatre will only be available in the evenings because of construction work in the building. While the nearby Event Cinema complex in George Street, the alternate daytime venue, suits the screening of several films at once and was at 90% capacity for the full 12 days of the festival last year, it offers less than half as many seats as the State.

And some cities are more price sensitive than others: it's more of an issue for Brisbane International Film Festival (BIFF) director Richard Moore, he said, than it ever was when he was executive director of the Melbourne International Film Festival.

But ticket sales is just one source of cash alongside that provided by governments and private sponsors.

The NSW Government announced earlier this month that it would continue to support the SFF for another two years, prompting SBS Film to ask a few questions of all the major state-based festivals about costs. All the responses contained some level of paranoia that inappropriate comparisons would be made and it is true that individual characteristics and circumstances have to be taken into account.

BIFF, for example, is the only festival that comes under the banner of a state film agency (these organisations develop and invest in local film and television projects and attempt to attract offshore production), which means Screen Queensland absorbs it's IT, secretarial, business management and some other costs.

“A straight comparison between SFF and BIFF or MIFF and BIFF wouldn't be apples to apples,” said Moore. “We are very conscious on the cost side… but there is some reassurance in knowing that it's highly unlikely that the state film agency is going to go bust.”

The Victorian Government's contribution to the staging of MIFF is $300,000. Said MIFF chair Claire Dobbin: “Government support is of crucial importance for film festivals, which live and die by their box office each year. Having the underlying support of government provides continuity in these difficult times of economic uncertainty and technological change.”

Additional government money goes towards a festival investment fund for Victorian films and documentaries, guaranteeing local premieres, and to stage an associated business-orientated event at which local filmmakers pitch to potential international investors and partners. This equates to economic value for the state in terms of production activity, not just audience pleasure.

How film festivals spend their money varies wildly and this too must be considered in any comparison. Within both SFF's budget and the Adelaide Film Festival's (AFF) are funds to stage an international competition, which includes flying out and accommodating guests to represent the chosen films, thus heightening the audience experience. SFF's $60,000 first prize is a big chunk of money but, with hundreds of festivals around the world now vying for films, it helps secure some of the most high-profile films.

For the country's youngest festival, AFF, the government contribution towards total costs – 57% according to Amanda Duthie, who only took up her new role as chief executive and director a couple of weeks ago – is significantly more than BIFF's 40% and SFF's 30%, which encompasses government funding at a local, state and national level.

Some will attribute this to the personal support of former SA Premier and film lover Mike Rann. That said, it would be difficult to argue that the biennial event hasn't been worth the expenditure: it very quickly developed a strong national and international reputation for being innovative, was the first to establish a competition and a film fund, and boldly fosters production across art forms.

A key point that must be made in relation to festivals is the degree to which they rely on the free labour of volunteers and contra deals in the form of venues, hotels, advertising, and so on.

Festivals are attractive branding opportunities for sponsors because there is the capacity to screen animated corporate logos and advertisements, and to link programming strands with a certain kind of audience. But some sponsors prefer to put their money with major cultural institutions such as galleries and major performing arts organisations because they have bricks-and-mortar venues that can accommodate plaques, operate year-round, and can provide individual artists for sponsors to associate themselves with.

So, with all these caveats now laid out, what do the film festivals cost to stage? Two of the four mentioned agreed to say: Adelaide costs $2 million per biennial festival, including in-kind support, while Sydney costs $5 million per annual festival and $2 million of that is provided under contra arrangements. Sydney dishes up more films over more days to more people.

SFF this year runs June 6-16, MIFF from August 2-19 and Brisbane from November 14-25. AFF has moved from early to late in the year, with the next one being from October 10-20, something Duthie describes as both a challenge and a gift.

“It takes us away from all those other fantastic South Australia cultural events such as AIDC (the Australian International Documentary Conference), WOMADelaide, Adelaide Festival and Fringe, but we intend to really peg out that spot in the second half of the year so audiences can experience a fine and distinctive event.”