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Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

Pay No Attention to What’s Behind the Curtain …

How should a journalist handle reporting information that a film festival might prefer not be written about?

This Films Gone Wild dispatch from the Dallas International Film Festival, written by ace PR guy John Wildman for Film Threat, delves into this rather heady issue. As a PR guy who’s handled a lot of fests (and handled PR for Dallas for the previous four years of its existence), John always has interesting insights into how film festivals work behind the scenes and stories about things that, if you’re just attending a fest for fun, you’d probably never realize happened.

He led this particular piece off with a story about the Dallas Observer’s Robert Wilonsky writing this piece about this year’s Dallas IFF schedule, which is focused more this year on artistry and filmmakers than on bringing in big name celebrities.

Buried toward the end of Wilonksy’s piece is a bit about a fundraising email sent by Dallas Film Society head Michael Cain’s wife, Melinda McKinnon (who is herself a big supporter of the fest) to “friends of the fest,” asking them to buy a $100 raffle ticket for a chance to win a Cadillac (Cadillac being this year’s big sponsor). John writes in his dispatch about how, upon his arrival to the fest, he was immediately drawn into a discussion about the Wilonsky piece and whether or not it constituted a PR problem for the fest.

Now there’s a couple ways a smart, experienced PR guy like John Wildman might have handled a situation like this, but he very smartly handled this “situation” by immediately realizing that it wasn’t a “situation” at all … it’s simply a journalist doing his job, reporting on the very real fact that Dallas IFF — like most film festivals in the past couple years — has been hard hit by the economy. And frankly, if reading that in the Dallas Observer makes some well-heeled Dallas cinephiles realize that a festival like Dallas can’t exist without the support (financial and otherwise) of its community and write some checks or donate frequent flier miles to keep it alive and thriving, well, that, in the end, is a Very Good Thing, n’est-ce pas?

John also is smart enough to know that the best way to deal with a bright pink elephant in the living room is not by hiding it, but by being honest and open about the fact it exists. The economy sucks. The people of Dallas are not stupid, they are certainly aware of this. A film festival takes money to operate. The Dallas community, which has been very supportive of this fest in its previous four years, continues to come out in droves to support it. The fest has more than shown that it can exist side-by-side with its harder-partying sister fest, SXSW.

But the reality of the economics of running a fest has meant that behind the scenes, a lot of people affiliated with Dallas IFF have been working their asses off to pull off a stellar fest on a tighter budget, while making the financial realities they’ve had to juggle less-than-transparent to your average person who just wants to come to a film festival and see some movies and maybe a star or two. This is the reality of running a regional fest that pretty much every fest team deals with at one time or another. You have your years when you’re flush with funds and sponsors, and the years when you’re panicking and scrambling behind the scenes, but putting on your game face for the public — especially those wealthy donors willing to invest their money into ensuring art is supported within their community.

By writing openly about Wilonsky’s piece, John dealt with it in the smartest way possible: by acknowledging that yes, of course the fest has had to deal with the economy like everyone else. By not addressing it as if it’s scandalous dirty laundry to keep hidden, but simply a fact of reality that the people of Dallas, really, need to be aware of. Because it’s their support, at the end of the day, that will either keep the fest alive or not.

If Dallas wants to sustain a first-class regional fest of the type that Michael Cain, James Faust, Sarah Harris and the Dallas Film Society have worked to build, it’s really on the citizens of Dallas to get off their asses and do what it takes to keep it going. Incenting fest supporters to donate frequent flier miles to get filmmakers out there, in a year when the fest lost Southwest as its airline sponsor, is a pretty smart way of handling that financial crunch.

Getting your headline sponsor to donate a Cadillac, and asking fest supporters who can afford to do so to buy a $100 raffle ticket? Also very smart. Even if you lose that raffle, you’ve spent $100 — couch change to a good many of these people — to ensure the survival of a meaningful celebration of film as an art form in your city. Dallas, as a city overall, has the money to support an arts community every bit as vibrant as Austin’s, but it takes money to make that happen.

As to whether it was right for Wilonsky to write publicly about a letter he received privately as a “friend” of the fest? Hard to say. Did the letter say on the bottom that it wasn’t intended for publication or any such disclaimer? Is it reasonable to expect that if you send a fundraising email to a list that includes press, it won’t get reported on?

And really, at the end of the day, who cares if the fest is aggressively fundraising to stay afloat? They aren’t the only fest getting creative with how to survive, and personally, I don’t think there’s any shame in that whatsoever.

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