More on the Uptown’s parting with CIFF

As reported in this week’s Fast Forward the Uptown Stage and Screen has pulled out of the Calgary International Film Festival. The Uptown’s owners wouldn’t agree to an interview but co-owner Blake O’Brien did send a statement with the company’s perspective. I could only fit a few sentences into my story but here’s his statement in full:

The Uptown is in a unique position in Calgary as the only truly independent cinema here. We have no other locations or partnerships. We book all our own films and lack the clout with distributors that comes from multiple locations and which translates to better access to films able to generate box office revenue. We strive to show films which we feel are important from an activist cinematic artistic or other perspective and are often overlooked by the chains such as Cineplex (Eau Claire) or Landmark (The Globe). Not that we wouldn’t show more popular titles but they’re rarely available to us as the majors tend to lock them up. As a result we make the best of our very limited marketing budget [using] reviews social networking sites and as much word of mouth that we can to market each title.

Although it varies from film to film we feel our audience is made up mostly of cinephiles who watch the programming at the Uptown and know about many of the films we show. When we first started participating with the festival we were optimistic that they would help nurture and grow the audience for less mainstream film and that people would gain a renewed interest in seeing those films year-round. It became clear though that the people we thought would come back to see those films outside of the festival had already seen them and there just weren’t enough cinephiles to go around.

Had we got a fair slice of the box office it might have made sense but the portion of the ($10 or $12 CIFF) ticket the public bought that we received was $.35. That’s 35 cents — or sometimes less than 3% of the box office revenue they took in. So while the festival packed the house with massive advertising budgets and glossy programs very little of that trickled down to the venue. It was our view that without cinemas you didn’t have much of a film festival. And without a fair rent for the theatre coupled with the fact that those patrons who came to see a film during the fest were not going to be our customers when we brought the film back afterward (unlike say folk fest which introduces REAL artists that the public can see again — live shows are always different) it didn’t make much sense economically.

We did it though for nine years as a service to our community but every year it got harder to get paid and earn other revenue from the festival — such as bar sales. We watched the galas go the Globe year after year and despite our construction of a bar (The Marquee Room) within our premises the public was frequently directed by CIFF off-site to drink and mingle. Through our connections to the actual film industry we hosted many parties in the Marquee Room that had actual actors and directors there many of whom loved being there and could not believe it was not “festival central.”

But it quickly became clear that the festival was more about the glamour and less about the cinema. They accessed public funds to spend on lavish parties that few attended and those that did spent considerable time looking for the celebrities that the public were told would be part of the experience (justifying the hefty ticket price). The parties were lame and lost the festival many tens of thousands each time (they repeated them frequently).

CIFF for many of the reasons put here never resonated with the film community in this city and the local directors were conspicuous by their absence from festival events. The film people that I have spoken with over the years have complained that they were not looked after and that despite CIFF’s representations there was little industry component no distributor interaction and no reason for them to have spent their own money to be there.

Sponsors seem to be the principal interest of the festival. Establishing legitimacy with those who send them money appears to be the main goal of the festival board. While the value of sponsorship is important for any festival the celebrity experience being sold by CIFF and Amex is particularly far-fetched. At a time when we and others are taking steps to reduce our carbon footprint empty Hummer limos are driving aimlessly around town advertising that experience. The disconnect between that and what we stand for became too much.

Our participation at wildly un-economic rents is tantamount to cash sponsorship and when we looked at how our “money” was being spent we decided it was no longer worth it.

Sorry Calgary. We hope you’ll come see great cinema in the manner it was meant to be seen at the Uptown all year round. Oh and no line-ups.

In a follow-up e-mail O’Brien said the Uptown was seeking 50 cents a ticket (as opposed to 35 cents).

I talked to executive director Jacqueline Dupuis for over an hour on Tuesday and asked her about the Uptown’s comments among other things.

Dupuis says it’s “too bad” the Uptown is portraying the festival as being out of touch with the local film community. “That’s obviously their perspective but I don’t think I have much by way of commenting on that. I think that’s certainly not what I hear from the local film community but as you said earlier a lot of people have a lot of opinions about that. I’m sure there are people who feel that way but it’s not a perception that I get from the people in the local film community that I speak with.”

Dupuis also took issue with the Uptown’s description of the festival as more focused on glamour than cinema. “I think we’ve got a good balance. Some of the glamour and flash needs to be there for the sponsors and stakeholders — and as well to attract a wider demographic to the festival — but I truly hope and believe that we still maintain and offer the degree of artistic quality that I think should make everybody happy. That’s not something that we’ve ever ever even remotely thought of sacrificing in the face of glamour and flash.

“…It’s a little challenging with the Uptown because they always want to charge us more to do the galas there but we’d actually planned for both of our galas to be there this year. So that’s strange.

I also asked Dupuis about the Uptown’s numbers (the statement that the theatre would get only 35 cents from each ticket sold). She responded in an e-mail: “I quite literally have NO idea what they mean by these numbers. We don’t and have never dealt with them on a percentage or fee-per-ticket basis…. We offered them a flat rental fee the same fee as the last two years. For the sake of protecting our supplier relationships I will not say what that fee is but I will say that it is the same as the last two years and is the same as we offered all of the other theatre venues (and they accepted).”

One last thing — the Uptown describes itself as the only “truly independent cinema” in the city. To which the Plaza Theatre in Kensington replies: Hey what about us? “We’re independent” says the Plaza’s Pete Harris. “We’re not affiliated with any chain so if the definition of independent theatre is independently owned and run then yes indeed we are 100 per cent independent.”