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 Washington Post Sunday - - Arts - By Des­son Thom­son

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.

Two Hats

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.”

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