Are 2 Roles Too Many at Filmfest DC?
The Festival Is 21 but Stopped Growing Long Ago. Some Say a Conflict of Interest Is Holding It Back.
The Maryland Film Festival has tripled its operating budget in nine years, and is planning for a dramatic increase — from about $350,000 to more than $1 million — in the next two years. In its five years, the Silverdocs documentary film festival, sponsored by the American Film Institute and Discovery Communications, has evolved into a buzzed-about event that attracts filmmakers and media coverage from around the globe.
Yet Filmfest DC, a festival granddaddy after more than two decades, has seemingly refused to grow. Under the stewardship of its part-time director — Tony Gittens — its mission (bringing international films to Washington audiences), budget (about $410,000) and number of films (84 shorts and features this year) have changed only incrementally over two decades. And Gittens, who is also executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, said there are no plans to expand the festival.
As Filmfest DC closes its 21st year tonight, it has maintained a steady-as-she-goes familiarity with locals, as synonymous with April as cherry blossoms. But the festival has failed to create any visibility beyond the Beltway. Todd McCarthy, chief film critic for Variety, who covers festivals for a living, confesses to knowing nothing of the Washington festival. (“I assume it’s a regional fest?”)
Ditto for Scott Rudolph, a film programmer for the Chicago International and Newport Beach festivals, who recently created a five-tiered ranking of festivals from around the country. His list doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive — it’s a selection of 34 better-known festivals rated according to reputation, attendance and other factors. But Silverdocs is now a fixture on his list, in the top 20 and on the heels of some of the country’s most prestigious festivals. And though Maryland doesn’t get a mention, he’s well aware of its growing prominence. As for Filmfest DC, he’d never heard of it.
Even those who compliment the festival note its provincial nature: “It’s a very respectable film festival with local reach,” says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, which has two movies at this year’s Filmfest DC.
Some people think Gittens’s dual role — director of both Filmfest DC and the commission that funds it — presents a conflict of interest. Gittens maintains it does not.
The idea for the Filmfest DC (originally known more formally as the Washington, D.C. International Film Festival) began in 1986. Gittens, who founded and ran the University of the District of Columbia’s Black Film Institute (which held film screenings and published a quarterly magazine), joined forces with Marcia Zalbowitz, an audiovisual programmer for the D.C. Public Library system. They worked the phones, their friends and the District government for funds to launch the annual, citywide event in 1987. After splitting over creative differences, Gittens assumed sole control over the festival and tapped festival volunteer Shirin Ghareeb as his assistant director.
In September 1996, Mayor Marion Barry appointed Gittens executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, inviting him to bring the festival under the auspices of the commission as one of its annual special events (there are now five such events, including the DC Hip-Hop Theater Festival). Gittens now receives a salary of about $103,000 as the commission’s arts administrator and continues to run Filmfest DC as part of his job.
Gittens and Ghareeb — he appointed her as his executive assistant at the arts commission after taking the job — have run the festival out of that office ever since. Gittens divides his time between Filmfest DC duties and his city job, administering an agency that issues approximately $9 million in city and federal funds to several hundred local artists and arts organizations — including Filmfest DC.
The festival’s budget of about $410,000 last year includes $65,000 in public funding from the commission, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Mayor’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development. The festival has turned a substantial profit: Its most recent tax statement showed a total of $584,809 in the bank, a result of 20 years of taking in more money than it spends. (Other film festival directors described this as an unusually high amount of savings; most spend their entire budget each year. Gittens says the funds are a mark of how well he’s running the event.)
That money, according to Filmfest chairwoman Kandace Laass, a marketing consultant and yoga instructor, is earmarked to pay the salaries of a new festival director and assistant director should Gittens and Ghareeb leave their current positions.
Does Gittens’s status present a conflict of interest? Is it self-dealing? At the very least, it presents an appearance of conflict, as the arts commission also provides grants each year to about half a dozen other film festivals, including the Environmental Film Festival and gay and lesbian Reel Affirmations.
Some local filmmakers and festival directors — a handful declined to be quoted on the record for fear of jeopardizing their funding relationships with the commission— feel there is a conflict. Carol Bidault, founder of the 10-year-old D.C. Independent Film Festival — which last year received $5,000 from the Mayor’s Office of Motion Picture and Television Development and $2,500 from the Virginia Film Commission — says she has applied to the commission six times in the past decade for a grant and has not received any money. (According to Gittens, the commission’s records show the DCIFF has applied for five grants and received $5,600.)
“We’re just asking for a fair and open process for everybody,” says Bidault. “I don’t think anybody should get mostfavored status.”
She continues: “If every executive director of [DCCAH] is going to bring their pet project in, I don’t think it’s fair and I think that’s called conflict of interest. And those issues are clear when we want them to be clear, but we’ve decided in D.C. that it’s not going to be clear.”
Other cities have taken pains to avoid this potential conflict.
In the past few years, Austin has overhauled what some perceived to be an overly politicized system of arts fund allocation. An example of its rigorous policy, from its creator Vincent Kitch, the city’s cultural arts program manager: “I’m a trombone player, but the city will not allow me to play for the groups who received funding. Do I think I could play with the symphony and still maintain my objectivity and job responsibility? Yes. But I don’t, because other people might say it’s a conflict.” Under Kitch’s new guidelines, funding committees in Austin award money to anonymous recipients, basing their decisions on objective, numerically coded criteria.
“The new system has some pros and cons,” says Kitch. “But at least it’s clean.”
Not One Penny
Sitting down for an interview in his commission office, Gittens, a personable, booming-voiced man of 62, says that there is no conflict of interest. He says he never makes funding recommendations for any arts group, including film festivals, and stresses that he makes none for Filmfest DC. Those decisions are made by the DCCAH board of directors.
“I don’t give a nickel or a dime or a penny — the arts commission has the say on grants.”
“We get questions about this all the time,” says Commission Chairwoman Dorothy McSweeny, referring to potential recipients “who think we are not being fair.” But arts commission employees being involved in the arts, she points out, isn’t uncommon: “I’ve been active on the Washington Ballet and the National Symphony Orchestra and that’s why . . . I was hired as the chair. When it comes to reviewing grants in any areas we have an affiliation with, we have to recuse ourselves.”
Having an arts commissioner running a festival that receives commission money apparently does not violate any District ordinance.
Kathy Williams, general counsel of the Office of Campaign Finance, says: “The conflict-of-interest statute appears to be no problem because Filmfest DC is a nonprofit entity.”
“I know Tony, personally, as someone who is honest and has the highest level of integrity,” says D.C. Council Member Kwame Brown, who oversees the city’s arts funding. “I have talked to the [arts] commissioners and they have said there is absolutely no conflict of interest.”
Meanwhile, the mayor’s office is looking into the matter. “We’re aware this could be viewed as a conflict of interest,” says Mafara Hobson, a spokeswoman for Mayor Fenty, “and we’ll be examining the issue closely to determine the best course of action.”
A Focus on Quality
How do you judge the quality of a festival, and Filmfest DC in particular? There are the hard numbers — and then there are the more nebulous issues of leadership, vision and programming.
The Filmfest budget is in the same ballpark as Maryland’s, the Independent Film Festival of Boston ($300,000), St. Louis International Festival ($367,000), Worldfest Houston ($425,00), and Atlanta Film Festival ($500,000). (The Virginia Film Festival, with a budget of $435,000, is sponsored by the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.) Last year Filmfest DC showed fewer films (about 75, including shorts) than most of the other festivals yet attracted many more festival-goers (about 34,000).
But the most significant number — the one that may shed the brightest light on why Filmfest DC hasn’t evolved and expanded the way many suggest it should — may be the hours devoted to it by its director. All of these other festivals have full-time directors and all but one have full-time, paid directors. Gittens’s leadership of Filmfest DC boils down to part-time work.
Some observers insist that the difference affects such intangible but crucial factors as the quality of the programming and the ability of the festival to grow and evolve.
“It boils down to the festival director being vibrant and doing a good job,” says Laura Thielen, executive director of the Aspen Film Festival.
Jed Dietz of the Maryland Film Festival has a reputation as a tireless director and promoter, who passionately pursues up-and-coming filmmakers, which he says is essential to create a successful festival. “Once you get past Sundance and Cannes and Toronto and maybe a few others like Seattle and Tribeca, the filmmakers don’t need you, so you have to be clear what you want, pursue them relentlessly and imaginatively so they understand why it’s good and even joyful for them to make a stop at the Maryland festival — or your festival.”
Some suggest it’s energetic leadership that has earned festivals like Silverdocs, the Tribeca Film Festival, Austin’s South by Southwest and the Miami International Film Festival their national and international reputations.
These festivals not only serve their immediate constituencies, they have created “a visibility beyond the local consumption,” explains Variety’s McCarthy, thanks to factors including imaginative programming, building a market where films are bought and sold, boosting financial resources or creating a unique niche in the festival-going market. Examples: Silverdocs grew out of the deep pockets of Discovery Communications. Miami made its focus Latin American film.
Gittens insists Filmfest needs no major expansion. And he questions what a sudden influx of money would buy: “What do we do with that, fly in big movie stars from California, put them up in fancy hotels and they show up for a screening and maybe — perhaps! Maybe! — the media shows up and talks to them about their film?”
“We’re not a star festival,” he says at a press luncheon last month. “We don’t strive for that. We’re more about the quality of the films.”
This philosophy, say close observers, leads to less-than-satisfying results.
Gittens is a “terrific administrator,” Edward Cockrell, a Filmfest DC programmer, says in an e-mail, but “he rarely has a large number of the marquee, art house titles everyone’s reading about in the New York Times or the rapidly dwindling number of serious film magazines.”
Zanne Lexow, a former Filmfest programmer, said Gittens’s appointment to the arts commission signaled a change in how the festival was run: “I felt he should have hired a full-time programmer or relied on more programmers” after he took the arts commissioner job. “He didn’t have the same time for it, or the passion. It was just another event on the calendar. I think that hurts the festival.”
Gittens “got the festival down to a manageable size,” according to Peter Brunette, a former festival programmer, “which is sort of where he’d like to keep it. . . . But I think Washington, D.C., is a big enough city that its festival needs to have a high-powered person running it full time, who is known in the film world and at fests all over the world.”
Tom Bernard, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Classics, one of the country’s leading distributors of independent and foreign films, says Filmfest DC “seems to be a festival that’s catch as catch can. It’s something when you get . . . Filmfest DC calling with an air of desperation, looking for a movie to benefit a festival rather than the festival to benefit a movie.”
Cockrell and other observers suggest corporate sponsorship is a good way to expand the festival’s reach and reputation: “More corporate clout would help grease the wheels to get some of these titles.”
Washington, according to Gittens, is a city with unique challenges. “There’s no private money here,” he says, apparently discounting major corporations in the region such as Lockheed Martin, AOL, Sprint-Nextel, General Dynamics, Capital One and Marriott International. “There’s not even any big foundations. . . . In Seattle you got the dot-com foundations. You go to San Francisco and you got [financier] George Gund and other sources to drive events.” Gittens says his mission is clear. “A festival like ours serves a different purpose — bringing great films to a great city. . . . We bring them in the spirit of celebration, to show films from around the world, stories of other cultures that never get seen in this country unless regional fests like us get them here. . . . It’s a service we provide. People come back year after year. And we feel that we are doing some good.”
And in terms of aspiring to the ranks of the higher-profile regional festivals, he says: “I don’t have those thoughts.” Staff researchers Rena Kirsch and Dan Keating contributed to this article.
Tony Gittens, who has been at the helm of Filmfest DC since it began in 1987, also heads the D.C. arts agency that helps fund it. He denies a conflict of interest. As for the festival’s lack of national stature, he says, “We’re not a star festival. We don’t strive for that.”