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,
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."
Rebecca D'Angelo/For The Washington Post
Correction to This Article
An April 29 Arts article incorrectly referred to Tony Gittens as an arts commissioner. Gittens is executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and is a city employee. Also, Dorothy McSweeny was incorrectly identified as the commission chairwoman. Her term expired recently. And McSweeny's statement that it is not uncommon for commission employees to be involved in the arts should have referred to arts commissioners, not employees.

Are 2 Roles Too Many at Filmfest DC?

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By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007

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.

Two Hats

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.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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