Filmfest DC’s financial woes could be fatal, says longtime director Tony Gittens

Filmfest DC, the longest-running film festival in a city that has become awash in film festivals in recent years, is on the brink of disappearing, according to its founder and longtime leader.

On Thursday, Filmfest DC director Tony Gittens is expected to announce that, because of dramatic increases in expenses and equally significant decreases in funding, the festival might not survive past this year’s event, which concludes Sunday.

(Rebecca D'Angelo/FTWP) - Tony Gittens.

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“It’s a blow, and there’s no way for us to feel pleased about it, but it’s real,” Gittens said Wednesday. “For the last few years, we’d been playing it pretty close with the budget and had a little bit of reserves, so we had been able to call on the reserves to help us get through last year and this year.” Although Gittens emphasized that the festival has enough money to pay its current expenses, “we started adding up the numbers and said, ‘We can’t do this again.’ ”

The biggest blow to the festival came in February, when Gittens learned that the University of the District of Columbia — which has served as headquarters and primary sponsor for the festival — would eliminate Filmfest DC’s deputy director’s position as part of a university-wide reduction in force. About the same time, he learned that a sustainability grant from the city would provide only $25,000, rather than the $150,000 he applied for.

Those cuts — coupled with increases in theater rental, airfare, hotel and advertising expenses — have forced Gittens to consider shuttering a festival that he started in 1987 as a staffer with UDC’s media division. In 1996, when Gittens became executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts, the festival came under the commission’s auspices. Gittens retired from local government in 2008, at which point Filmfest DC returned its headquarters to UDC. The festival is still housed and receives general office support there.

Gittens said Filmfest DC’s operating budget last year was about $500,000, with between $80,000 and $85,000 going to salaries. He noted that the cost of renting theaters has increased by thousands of dollars since then, as have the costs of transporting and housing filmmakers, many of whom travel from around the globe. The festival has cut back on advertising, parties, guests and its annual opening gala at Ford’s Theatre, Gittens said.

Asked whether he would consider trimming the length and scope of Filmfest DC — which runs over 11 days every spring — Gittens said that “we looked at that, but it wouldn’t make a significant difference. When we rent these places, we rent them for a week, so taking off a day here or there won’t make a difference for us. And the festival is here to show movies. That’s the core of what we do. We don’t want to reduce that.”

Gittens said next year’s budget is facing a shortfall between $200,000 and $250,000. He is looking for money from universities, foundations, corporate sponsors and private donors. Even Kickstarter? “We’ll try that as well,” Gittens said. “We’re looking everywhere.”

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