Organization. Naples International Film Festival
Key. Holding fundraising events in the slow “shoulder” season could be the key to growth.
When Naples resident Jill Wheeler asked her friend and film director Louie Psihoyos to show his documentary at the inaugural Naples International Film Festival last year, she secretly worried he wouldn't show up.
Since she had asked little-known Psihoyos to show his film, The Cove, he had become the surprise hit at the Sundance Film Festival and would go on to win the “best feature documentary” at the Oscar awards.
“We were just a no-name startup, but he stuck to his word,” says Wheeler. “It was great to put us on the map.”
The Cove was shown to a sold-out crowd of 1,100 people on Nov. 5, 2009, at the Naples Philharmonic Center for the Arts. With that, festival organizers quickly shattered any doubts that a film festival could be successful in Naples.
“The town is ready for it,” says Wheeler, one of festival's five original board members. “Everybody wants a piece of it.”
Starting a film festival in one of the worst recession in decades wasn't easy.
“We survived on $18,000 in cash for the whole year,” says Tim Rowe, the festival's volunteer chief operating officer. But noncash contributions totaled more than $300,000 for things like advertising, transportation and accommodations, he says.
Over three days, 3,500 people saw 40 films in November, generating ticket sales of $82,000. At the end of the festival, organizers had $4,000 left over and gave $500 to the Education Foundation of Collier County.
Organizers say the success of the festival was due in part because they established partnerships with local businesses during the slow months leading up to the tourism season in January. “I'm here to help you,” is film festival Executive Director Rowan Samuel's pitch.
Samuel and the other co-founders purposefully scheduled the festival in November so restaurants and hotels could benefit during what is typically a slow month. And they organized fundraising events at restaurants on days when they needed the business most with film-themed parties and dinners.
The festival even hosted a fundraising party for children at Noodles restaurant one recent afternoon. About 150 children showed up with their parents and the DJ from the Ritz-Carlton entertained them.
What's more, the film festival isn't the typical exclusive event in Naples. The most expensive VIP event costs less than $200 and most film tickets don't cost more than a trip at the movies. “It's something everyone can participate in,” says Wheeler.
Building a film festival on volunteer labor was a feat, especially considering the large number of charities in Collier County. “There's hundreds of them,” Rowe says. “It's very competitive.”
The film festival didn't have the money to hire a staff, but it had about 100 passionate volunteers. “Most nonprofits start with a couple of friends,” Samuel says. “Nobody got paid any money.”
Rowe and Samuel saw how other festivals fared when they borrowed money to pay a staff. “They never became financially sustainable,” Rowe says, and the debt piled up. “It takes a solid business plan,” he says.
Still, putting on a three-day film festival requires so many hours that it's not likely sustainable on volunteers alone. “Four or five of us worked 12-hour days for six weeks,” Rowe says. “This year we knew it couldn't happen again.”
Now in its second year, the nonprofit has a modest payroll of $40,000, which includes stipends for the executive director, an administrative assistant, the artistic director and the program director. That's the amount that the festival expects in cash contributions this year.
But that's still a bare-bones operation. For example, the Miami film festival has a staff of 17 people, Samuel says.
The challenge organizers face is how to get dozens of volunteers excited about the event in early November and start thinking about 2011. “It's hard to get ahead of the game when it's all volunteer,” Rowe says.
“You keep talking about the mission to energize volunteers,” Samuel says. To thank the volunteers last year, organizers took them on an evening boat cruise. “You have to keep thanking and appreciating everybody,” he says.
But the film festival has something other nonprofits lack: Fun.
“Selfishly, I got into this because I didn't want anything too serious,” says Brenda Melton, a volunteer who has become one of the festival's most active fundraisers.
Melton persuaded dozens of stars and other famous people to sign martini glasses designed by Naples artists and they're expected to fetch thousands of dollars at an upcoming auction. Stars such as John Travolta, Sarah Jessica Parker and Brett Favre have signed the glasses. “I never thought I'd volunteer 80-hour weeks,” Melton says. “I get up at 5 a.m. and go to bed dreaming what's next.”
Samuel, Rowe and others have big plans for the festival.
To grow it to the size that could bring it to the top tier of film festivals, such as Toronto or Tribeca, they say they need an annual operating budget of about $400,000 a year. That compares with this year's $130,000 budget.
“You have to have something to sell,” says Samuel. “The mission is to have an impact on the shoulder season.”
Now that the film festival can show it can sell out the 1,100-seat Naples Philharmonic, sponsors have started to take notice. The organization now has a database of 6,000 names of people who have attended fundraising events. “We have a broad demographic,” Rowe says.
Local government is interested too. For example, the festival received $20,000 for advertising outside the region from the local Tourist Development Council. And the festival's organizers have applied for grants from other nonprofits, such as the Community Foundation.
After this November's festival, Rowe says the organization must develop a three- to five-year plan.
“We need to create a foundation or a 'friends of the festival',” Rowe says. That would help the organization tap into wealthy donors, many of whom have cut back on donations to nonprofits. “They want to see: What have you done?” Samuel says.
For now, corporate sponsorships are still difficult to come by, in part because of the organization's youth and the ongoing economic hardships. Sponsorships range from $250 to $10,000. “You have to understand we're a first-year organization,” Rowe says.
But as more people attend the festival this year, the more likely the effort will survive and thrive. “We have a story,” Samuel says. “People know about it.”