CIFF Crain’s Comeback Kid

Mike Ozan 10.07.11

On the comeback trail: Cleveland International Film Festival


June 27, 2011

For Tim Downing, one of his lowest points as president of the Cleveland International Film Festival’s board of trustees was when he passed around a hat and pleaded his fellow trustees for donations so the festival could make payroll.

“People were generous, and we were able to do it, but it was a very dark time for the organization,” said Mr. Downing, a partner at Ulmer & Berne LLP, about the organization’s financial woes of the early 2000s. “That was the “ah-ha’ moment for many on the board. They thought it was bad, but not really that bad.”

Facing an operating deficit in 2003 of about $110,000 out of an annual budget of about $770,000, the festival that had been operating since 1977 was in flux and its leaders were staring down the possibility of whether it had rolled its closing credits.

Unlike many nonprofits that struggled in recent years, the film festival’s near-demise wasn’t spurred by the crippling recession or plummeting financial markets. Rather, it was a case of what its leaders characterized as “mission creep.” Simply put, the organization took on too much and lost sight of what it did best: produce a world-class film festival.

“We did learn how to fake confidence until (our recovery) became real,” said Marcie Goodman, the film festival’s executive director. “So if you asked how things were, we would say, “Great.’ We believe what you put out there is what you get back. We’re always going to try to be as positive as we can.”

Today, the film festival’s narrative isn’t nearly as disheartening. With solid numbers in the books, a strong membership base and booming attendance numbers, Ms. Goodman said she and her staff of five others aren’t so much thinking about how to keep the doors open but rather how to make the festival a better experience each year.

In sets the “creep’

In the 1990s, the film festival broadened its mission in hopes of developing a filmmaking work force in Cleveland. As part of the shift, the group changed its name to the Cleveland Film Society and offered programming such as filmmaking courses and film appreciation classes.

At the time, the Greater Cleveland Film Commission hadn’t formed and Cuyahoga Community College and Cleveland State University weren’t yet offering filmmaking courses. But as those other resources launched, the film society’s niche eroded and interested parties went elsewhere, Ms. Goodman said.

“We took on a lot by doing that,” Ms. Goodman said. “That was really a contributing factor to the financial challenges we started to face in 2001 and 2002. We tried to do too much.”

Eliminating that component of the festival and dropping the film society moniker was a difficult pill to swallow for many of the organization’s board members, Mr. Downing said. However, he noted the organization just “didn’t have the bandwidth to do it the way it needed to be done.”

“Some were not happy we were not going to do those things anymore, and they left the board, but organizations like this need to make those decisions sometimes for the overall health of the organization,” he said.

Ultimately, the film festival restructured its board, adding 13 new members who were able to donate and raise significant funds for the film festival’s coffers. Likewise, the organization eliminated three of the festival’s six full-time positions.

With the personnel shifts and a newly focused mission, the film festival started to climb out of the financial abyss in which it had fallen, and it did so fairly quickly. In 2004, attendance increased by 11.8% to 39,338 and it has improved steadily each year since.

“That’s when all the figures started jumping. That was a very lean time around here,” said Patrick Shepherd, festival associate director. “We had three of us here around the clock. We had an executive director answering the phone and door. They were lean times, but we pushed through it.”

And the success of 2004 wasn’t a one-time blip, either. Between 2003 and 2011, the film festival’s attendance climbed from 35,173 to 78,030 — a 122% surge. Likewise, membership grew in that time period from 400 members to 1,064 members.

Getting better, not just bigger

Though the film festival is on solid financial footing, Mr. Shepherd said the organization is keeping close watch of its finances as its largest funder — the county’s cigarette tax for arts organizations — is slated to sunset in 2016 unless voters renew the measure.

Through the end of this year, the festival will have received $536,937 in cigarette tax dollars. But given the tax’s diminishing revenue stream, grant dollars from the tax are expected to continue to decline.

“It went from not being in our universe to being our No. 1 funder,” Mr. Shepherd said. “For many organizations, it helped ensure they were stabilized during the recession. For us, it continued to fuel our growth. That funding stream is so important to us.”

Were it to sunset, the film festival’s leaders said they would find some way to plug the hole. The festival has diversified its funding stream in recent years through more corporate sponsors. For one, every film at the festival now can be sponsored.

Still, Ms. Goodman said the focus of the festival is to get better — not bigger — each year. She said it was important for the film festival to stay locked on its mission and provide the best film festival it could.

And Ms. Goodman’s message is one that could be applied to other fledgling nonprofits, according to Kathleen Cerveny, director of evaluation and institutional learning at the Cleveland Foundation, one of the festival’s funders.

“We considered them to be quite a success story — an example to others how you really need to look at your organization and focus with a laser on your core mission,” Ms. Cerveny said.

Inside the numbers

2003: 35,173
2011: 78,030

2003: $770,641
2011: $1,587,550

2003: 400
2011: 1,064

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