AFI DALLAS 2009 – The long belated wrap up (Part Two – The All-Volunteer PR Army)

Posted in Uncategorized by johnwildman on May 4, 2009

Let’s start this simply: Like every film festival, AFI DALLAS had to deal with serious money issues this year. Nothing unique, surprising or original there. Now what did that mean really?

Well, it meant a change in presenting sponsors – going from Target to NorthPark Center. To their credit, Target remained as the sponsor for the big $25K prizes the festival gives to the winner of its narrative and documentary competitions. And those are important. Really important. Because, while the hallowed laurel wreaths that frame an award title from any given film festival is great validation and oftentimes proof of smart purchase for potential theatergoers or DVD buyers, that tangible immediate return on the investment weighs big in an independent filmmaker’s mind as they decide where to take their film. And having NorthPark Center literally buy in to the festival was helpful in that they were obviously very much invested in the presentation and success of what we were doing far beyond what happened to be screening or taking place at their location.

It also meant that a core group of individuals had to come forward to provide the financial backbone to ensure AFI DALLAS’s third year would be every bit as impressive as the first two years. And that is something worth re-stating: AFI DALLAS 2009 owed a great, great deal to its Deep Ellum Film Festival roots because the people who had come together throughout that film festival’s life were the ones that stood tall when the economic crap gave sucker punches to the more recent arrivals that weren’t as solidly dedicated to this film festival.

Of course, it meant the festival had to contract: a couple fewer days and less films. And a lot has already been written how that actually highlighted the programming vision of Michael Cain, James Faust, and Sarah Harris. I had a conversation with Robert Koehler (the noted film critic that is joining programming forces with AFI FEST Artistic Director Rose Kuo for the 2009 edition) a few days ago where he compared the paring down of film fest selections with the NCAA Basketball Tourney after the first round when 64 teams suddenly become 32. The idea being that those 32 teams (or those fewer films) had to prove their mettle to stay in the game. They didn’t just make it in because they were the least worst option from their divison or part of the country, they had to literally beat another team to live for another day. In a similar manner, less films means less dubious choices because you simply don’t have the screening slots to waste – you have to make each one count.

And somehow, with less days and fewer films, we wound up with a larger audience. An audience that was frequently buying individual tickets -therefore they were making discerning choices on what they wanted to see. And still going to see nearly everything offered in droves. Which is one of the many great things about Dallas. If you haven’t been there and you’re painting it with a big secessionist red paint brush – you need to stop – at least if you’re a filmmaker, because the people there will turn out to see a wide, wild variety of films and give a movie its shot and its due.

But what about me and my needs? Or less meglo-maniacal – the press and public relations department? How did all of this contraction due to the economy affect what we do? Well, it meant an even greater dependence on volunteer staffing. Other that myself and the cheerfully dedicated force-of-nature Michael DeVous Jr., who served once again as my Publicity Coodinator – it was all about the volunteers. (To be clear, this does not including the Video Department, Photo Department and AFI DALLAS Daily News Department – which, while also staffed almost entirely by volunteers, did have a paid supervisor and in a couple cases coordinators that were given a token (and I do mean token) amount to tide them over somewhat.

None of which would be an issue if I didn’t insist on trying to do everything we could to get PR for every film of ours within our reach, so-to-speak. I began at AFI FEST in 2006 as the Filmmaker Press Liaison with a mandate to get PR for the “little” films, the indies, the foreign productions and the shorts. At that time the staff had a Director of PR, a PR Coordinator, a Special Events (Galas) Coordinator and myself.

Not here. Not now. No – two people were given the task of trying to accomplish what by this point has become ten times the work and output attempted by that team in 2006.

The smart money (meaning the money that wants to sleep eight hours each night) would say answer the phones, get screeners out to the major reviewers, direct some movie star foot traffic and call it a day.

Not so much. Instead, Michael and I organized our volunteer usual suspects and added some new recruits and more or less gave them titles and responsibilities that a lot of people getting their feet wet with stuff would kill for. It meant we had to train them to do things as if we were doing it personally and it meant we had to trust them in a big way to pull it all off. But we had no choice in the matter. Therefore, the following volunteers – again, let me really emphasize this: VOLUNTEERS. Working days and nights. For free. No money. Anyway, here is a sampling of the remarkable army that I have endless amounts of gratitude for:

Carolyn Hodge (Daily Filmmaker Interview Junkets Studio Producer)

Every day, each attending filmmaker had an opportunity to do sit down interviews with whatever outlets or journalists that had signed on that day. Set up with the same template that any film junket would be done for any studio (just somewhat smaller), schedules were created, massaged and then coordinated between both the filmmakers and journalists like clockwork. Sites like Indie Express, Real TV, Gordon & the Whale, publications like Envy Magazine, The Dallas Observer, even some local TV benefited by the professional, courteous and efficient way that Carolyn and her series of location producers and site escorts ran that show.

Theresa Pegues (Visiting Journalist Liaison)

Theresa, in many ways, had to replace the national PR agency that for the past two years had done the heavy lifting for the effort to bring in national journalists and coordinate their travel once in Dallas as well as the communication regarding screenings, panels, parties, events, etc. I think we were responsible for eight individuals and two complete crews’ travel to participate on the panels and to cover the film festival and almost all of it was on her personally. One person replaces one agency basically. Of course, that wasn’t nearly all that the agency had helped us with but I think you get the message of how much responsibility that was for one person. And those people could not have been in better hands.

Chessica Moon (Red Carpet Coordinator)

For the first time in all of the film festivals and all of the gala events I have done PR for or produced in the past three years, I had to be absent from my own red carpet for a portion of those entrances. Because we had some “high risk” celebrities and panel moderating duties that required my personal handling, timing just sucked. But fortunately for me and AFI DALLAS, this was Chessica’s third year at our little movie rodeo and she had the system down. Each day she was on top of the prep for that night’s show and when it came time for he deputy to fill in and keep things moving along in an orderly manner, she missed not a single beat. “Thank God,” I was saying to myself as I would walk up to the carpet and see it rolling along smoothly…

Tanya Wright (Press Events Liaison)

The worst part of this job, for me, are the parties. And I’ll tell you why. Because it’s all about guest lists and how much room there is and who I’m allowed to let in and deserves to get in (because they’re REALLY covering the films and the filmmakers) versus the pain-in-the-asses that just want to get in the door and party on the festival’s dime. To do what I think I need to do – which is talk up our filmmakers to anyone press-wise who will give me the time of day, and moderate Q&As and panels and basically be an in-person advocate for the films our programmers have chosen, I can’t be at a laptop 24/7 managing guest lists. Enter Tanya. Despite never having done something like this before, Michael and I through her into the deep end of the pool, occasionally gave her a life preserver of coaching and advice and she became the lifeline of info for each of those journalists for the parties and the gala film presentations as well. And she did it much more nicely and politely than I have ever managed.

Barton Peters (Social Networking Coordinator) and James Stanton (Archive and Impressions Data Coordinator)

These were the new guys. A SMU student (Barton) and a lawyer prepping for his final bar exams (James), these two went far beyond their titles (which were beyond vital for us to pull off in a dedicated, organized and efficient manner), but also bled into being the right hand office guys in terms of managing and organizing the incoming materials and supplies for the films as well as various of-the-moment tasks and jobs and questions that randomly rear their complicated little heads. And they were there – day-in, day-out. And what they did added to a shit-load of peace of mind for me. By this point, the Social Networking aspect of film festival PR encroaches on and threatens to usurp so much of the more traditional outreach efforts and as far as those sponsors that are so important to us are concerned – it really is all about that final impressions report. So, we can bust ass, make inroads to new journalistic avenues and outlets, but if we can’t prove the audience numbers, readership or online hits…no one with a corporate insignia cares. Bottom line.

And beyond that were additional volunteer rock stars (handling positions within our Ethnic & Special Interest Outreach Programs, “Adopt a Film” efforts, serving as junket and red carpet interviewers, press event check-in spots, and red carpet escorts) – including (in alphabetical order): Heather Amend, Stacy & Mike Archip, Kim Cicio, Richard Dodder, Todd Drake, Betsy Dyer, Marty Ezelle, Joyce Foy, Wendy Golman, Lauren Hadaway, Ashely Hall Bryant Hicks, Joe Hwang, Joy Ingram, Jackie Jones, Kevin & Linda Rush, Tricia Shissmacher, Jackie Smith, Robert Smith, Debi Spear, Kayla Svec, Claudia Taylor, Dawn Thomas, Natalie & Saji Thomas, Cristina Uranga, Jean Vaughn, Allen Warchal, Melissa Zales.

I hope to God I haven’t missed anyone or misspelled a name with these. And again, this doesn’t even get into the video, photo or news departments. And I don’t, for a second, think AFI DALLAS is unique in how much we lean on our volunteers to make this event work. I just want to underline the professional level they do the jobs (in this case) that we ask, and skill with which they handle the details of the job – which 90 percent of the time isn’t their career skill set. But we gave them ownership of those roles as well as the titles befitting those jobs and placed a lot of the PR effort this year in their hands.

And to a person – they came through for us. I retool and refine the Press and PR system not just once a year, but with each film festival I’m in charge of throughout the year (which currently stands at five with an advisor’s role for a sixth) and there is always A LOT to retool and refine and reconsider. But this year’s AFI DALLAS was a huge confirmation to me that people both work and volunteer for a film festival because they literally LOVE films and filmmakers. They either work for less, or work longer, or work for nothing at all and still work longer because it matters to them. It matters that they are a part of an effort to screen and celebrate films – all films. More often than not, the people working for studios can’t compete with that. They can’t even come close.

The bottom line is that is why AFI DALLAS was so successful this year. Because the people that didn’t have a stake in the game, the ones that were lukewarm with their support, each sponsoring company that didn’t return to the fold simply showed that it wasn’t that important to them. They exhibited the fact that they didn’t understand the worth of the film festival. They didn’t and don’t “get” it. And those people were far outnumbered by the ones that do get it – in Dallas, in Texas, nationally, internationally, critically, in filmmaking communities, and with the general populace.

All of those people are following the lead of the AFI DALLAS volunteer army and leaving everyone else behind.

Of course, we’re always happy to let them try to catch up with us.

One Response

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  1. Melissa Z. said, on May 27, 2009 at 6:36 am

    Thank you so much for the opportunity to be part of an amazing team, John. It was so awesome to be part of such an amazing organization again.

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