Wade on Birmingham

EXCLUSIVE – Sidewalk 2009: September success brings $20,000 surplus


Film festival combines budget cutting, increased sales and speedy fund-raising

Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival 2009 - Alabama Theatre

Almost showtime: Before a screening at the Alabama Theatre
during the 2009 Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival.

In a year of troubled festivals in Birmingham, one event managed a storybook ending despite the odds. The 2009 Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival had a new executive director, a budget shortfall and a ticking clock.

Wade on Birmingham - Sidewalk Moving Picture FestivalHere’s what didn’t happen: The 11-year-old film fest didn’t shut down before opening night. It didn’t leave vendors unpaid. And it didn’t file for bankruptcy.

Instead, Sidewalk finished $20,000 in the black and pulled in roughly 13,000 attendees, despite a troubled economy.

In this exclusive interview, executive director Chloe Collins shares how the two-person staff and their 425 volunteers not only survived, but succeeded.

Budget breakdown

With Collins’ arrival in April, she faced two common obstacles: time and money. She had less than 5 months to get the festival ready and a $10,000 deficit cutting into her resources.

“It’s really hard to get people excited about doing less,” she said. “It’s an easier sell to say, ‘Look at the stuff we’re adding.'”

Her goals were to just see if she could do it, to put on the event with the same level of quality as previous years without more debt, yet still improve the programming.

Organizers went throughout the budget line by line, cutting expenses like Collins’ travel budget and saving money by switching insurance companies and partnering with sponsors for the event’s parties.

In addition, the Alabama Moving Image Association, the actual entity that runs the festival and other Sidewalk events, changed the membership program and held an online fund-raiser called Kick the Bucket. The 3-week goal was $10,000, but the total raised was $5,864.

And yet, it was nearly $6,000 that the festival didn’t have before, from a campaign in August, right in the heat of actual event preparation.

Collins has created 100 proposals for both local and national sponsors. She has also invested time in applying for grants. Melissa Kendrick, who had been hired with grant money as the association’s part-time development director, instead took a job as chief executive officer of the American Lung Association of Alabama.

Not only was Collins learning the ropes as executive director but also was filling in as development director along the way.

The event had no title sponsor as it had in 2008. But it did have one other triumph: more ticket sales.

All combined, the festival wrapped with $20,000 extra, 20 percent over the goal for the year, according to preliminary figures from Collins.

Room to breathe

Collins points out that the festival has run lean over the years, so the surplus gives Sidewalk some breathing room. The association paid all its vendors in full by October, including any from 2008 who still hadn’t been fully reimbursed.

“We’re in a better place than I thought we would be in back in June or July,” Collins said.

Still, the festival was not without a hiccup or two. For example, a new audience tracking system didn’t fully live up to expectations.

Attendees who bought online tickets and filled out demographic info would have their passes scanned at each screening. The data collected would not only give an attendance figure, but also reveal which movies were popular with specific groups. (In past years, volunteers would count audience members upon entrance using hand clickers.)

Instead, glitches human and otherwise generated an incomplete picture. Based on the preliminary data, organizers estimate 13,000 attended the three-day event in September. They plan to look deeper into the numbers over the coming months.

Past years’ attendance figures — around 10,000 to 13,000 — have been rough estimates, based on ballot and clicker counts.

Coming soon

The event itself “went off without a hitch,” Collins says, in part because of festival producer Denise Koch of McMillan Associates. The Birmingham-based agency has worked with Sidewalk since 2007. Collins had nothing but praise for Koch: “I feel comfortable with Denise. … Denise did a really good job for us. She was committed to the festival.”

Koch and her boss George McMillan are facing arrest warrants for bad check charges related to their work on City Stages. The downtown music festival declared bankruptcy after a lackluster showing in June, leaving dozens of vendors unpaid.

Collins signs all checks and contracts related to Sidewalk, rather than an outside representative.

Meanwhile, Collins is preparing the 2010 budget for board approval. With one festival completed, she has been looking ahead to improvements for next time, including possibly adding another staff member and reassigning duties within the office.

“We’re so blessed to have repeat customers (as volunteers) and new volunteers,” Collins said. “I feel really blessed that we’ve gotten to this point, and that we have such huge community support.”

• • •

Action! Complete Sidewalk Festival coverage.

Photo by Ali Clark / aliclark.org

3 Yips for “EXCLUSIVE – Sidewalk 2009: September success brings $20,000 surplus”

  1. Jennifer West
    Friday, November 6, 2009, 4:52 pm

    BRAVO!!! so exciting.

  2. Tweets that mention Wade on Birmingham » Blog Archive » EXCLUSIVE – Sidewalk 2009: September success brings $20,000 surplus -- Topsy.com
    Friday, November 6, 2009, 5:07 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Wade Kwon, Siobhan Sullivan. Siobhan Sullivan said: Glad to hear! RT @WadeOnTweets EXCLUSIVE: How Sidewalk succeeded-Bham film festival goes $20,000 in the black: http://bit.ly/sidewalk09 […]

  3. Wade
    Friday, November 6, 2009, 8:57 pm

    It’s quite an accomplishment and a bright spot in a year with other cultural failures in Birmingham.

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