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A research on Film Festival Tourism III

The previous articles provided the context for the growing film festival tourism phenomenon. In this last installment, more specific information is provided about the participants in festival tourism, the services provided by the few agencies in this new niche market, and the characteristics of the film festivals that would most likely benefit from film festival tourism.

As noted before, comprehensive Canadian research on US festival tourism enthusiasts, including those groups who reported 600,000 visits to international film festivals, shows a marked difference from the ‘average’ American adult individual and the common US tourist visiting Canada. Festival enthusiasts are characterized by having reached above average levels of education, coming mostly from adult-only households without children under the age of 18, falling largely into the 34 + age group, and are likely to have traveled abroad during the preceding years. Their average household income reaches $68,100, which is considerably higher than that of the average US household income of $44.200 for 2000, the year of the study. Festival enthusiasts have above average education, with 55% reporting some post secondary education and 31% reporting university graduation. Their consumption patterns in cultural or other areas are shaped by upscale education and income. Thus many of them indicate participation during their trips in local performing arts events, include museums in their travels, and visit historic sites. Further, there is a high preference for culinary activities and international dining, all factors that need to be taken into account when ‘cross marketing’ film festival tourism. These characteristics also hold with some qualifications for European festival enthusiasts, since the systemic characteristics of their ‘post industrial societies’ are close to those found in the United States. To name and to repeat some of the characteristics mentioned in the first parts of this series: changes in the family structure; shift to the private sphere as the principle area of realizing one’s self; visual imagery as one crucial though not determining feature of society; organization of the individual’s or the group’s experience through external agencies like the nanny or lifestyle coach; and finally, consumption of culture, including the unique experience of film festivals bestowing prestige and differentiating the individual festival attendee from others.

This socio-economic context combines with the shift to the experience-based society, leading to the emergence of the lucrative and stimulating niche of film festival tourism, which follows the patterns of event and destination tourism. What was packaged in 2006 and 2007 by relatively few agencies and individuals— ranges from the eleven-day, biannual Floating Film Festival cruise from Costa Rica to the Caribbean, costing between $3,300 and $9,500, to the four-day Vancouver International Film Festival package, more affordably priced at $876. These charges do not include airfare nor cover single-occupancy. Spending close to $10,000 for an eleven-day film cruise may strike the observer as excessive, yet in the upscale luxury range of event/destination tourism for affluent travelers, there is sufficient demand. A twelve-day, ‘Five Star Travel Experience,’ The Jews of India, under the guidance of a rabbinical scholar, is now selling-out to the tune of $16,533 per single occupancy. Kayak arranges trips to Milwaukee and provides racecar training at an additional fee of $4,000.

In the film festival tourism niche, the standard packaged tour offered by agencies includes accommodations, briefings, breakfasts, lunch, tickets or a festival pass, attendance of the opening or closing night film, and access to parties. The Seattle International Film Festival sold through the Let’s Travel agency based out of L.A a package totaling $1.450 for five days at the 2007 Palm Springs International Film Festival, including airfare. Limited to 20 participants, the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival package offered by the same agency cost $1845 without airfare, and included meals for two days “at some of New York’s best restaurants,” a ticket to one Broadway play, admittance to post-screening discussions and the promise to meet privately with film directors and “other luminaries”. A similar Berlin International Film Festival package was also offered by the Let’s Travel agency, as was a five day package to the Savannah Film Festival for $1,570.

Silver Screen Tours prominently features a well-established film professor, Virginia W. Wexman, as the tour leader. This individual could more aptly be called a ‘film tour coach’ or ‘personal handler,’ since she selects the films that participants will be screening and leads the discussion sessions arranged for the group. As those familiar with the U.S. probably know coaching for all areas of every day life including image building, social interaction and culture consumption is becoming rather popular in the US, and will include films as well. The tours that Virginia Wexman handles are booked through a travel agency. The cost of four days at Tribeca with Wexman is $1746, covering hotel, breakfasts, one dinner at an “upscale restaurant”, a tour of New York and other minor items. Similar four-day packages, though including invites for the opening and closing night galas, were offered at $1339 for the 2006 Vancouver International Film Festival, at $1475 for the 2006 American Film Institute festival, and at $1604 for the 2007 Palm Springs International Film Festival.

I very much doubt that well-publicized film festival tourism could actually increase the number of visitors to major film festivals such as Tribeca, Berlin, Venice, Cannes or Toronto or that these festivals need or even welcome an influx of films festival tourists. It would be difficult to convince funding or tourism agencies to provide festival funding for that purpose. Also, the larger the festival is, the less intimate is the knowledge of the festival that will be gained by the film festival tourist. Thus, it would be virtually impossible for film festival tourists to have access to film directors, to professionals running the festival, or to press conferences and press screenings. Equally problematic is to receive invitations at major film festivals to the mostly private receptions that are funded by corporations, to award ceremonies, and to the opening and closing parties. Any promise by a travel agency or coach to arrange this access is most questionable. At the Berlinale, more than 4000 journalists were accredited this past year, and only a few of them were able to gain access to festival professionals, parties and ceremonies.

The only festival organized for upscale film tourists that has apparently delivered on its promises is the Floating Film Festival. By restricting the audience to 200 participants, as determined by the size of the theater of the luxury cruise ship used, the festival has succeeded in providing an intensive introduction to cinema by featuring outstanding films and influential directors, such as Martin Scorcese. George Anthony, Roger Ebert, Mary Corliss and other professionals have comprised the regular crew, ensuring the quality of the enterprise. It goes without saying that, given its convocation on a luxury liner, the film cruise offers gourmet cuisine and other amenities. As noted previously, the cost does not include airfare to the cruise departure location, and charges for the film cruise run from $ 3,300 to $9,500. The Spiritual Cinema Festival-at-Sea, “specialized in laughter and crying” and sailing from Florida to the US and British Virgin Islands, offers an alternative. Charging from $1,200--$3,000 for a one-week cruise with a 14 long and short films in the screening program, the trip sold out rapidly.

Access by film festival tourists to the big film festivals, above and beyond the provision of travel, accommodations, and passes or tickets is rather problematic. If we recall the demographic profile of festival enthusiasts, then film festival tourism seems to be most suited to smaller and regional international film festivals in appealing locations. There, the tastes and desires of film tourists can be more readily catered to. As Andra Takacs from Canadian Film Festival Tours put it, “…the needs of cinema lovers who want to attend the Toronto International Film Festivals are best met [by travel agents] through a highly personalized service…” as distinct from organizing a group for a major fest like Toronto or other large industry oriented film festivals.

Thus we are back to the film festivals identified earlier…be it Telluride, the Hamptons, the Bahamas International Film Festival, the Mexican Expresion en Corto in San Miguel d’Allende, or the Newport International Film Festival, to mention but a few. These festivals take place in small but attractive geographical locations which are frequently of historical interest. They are already appealing to upscale tourists due to their exotic, foreign, maritime, or other attributes which are likely to satisfy the artistic, culinary and other leisure interests of visitors. These festivals are important enough to incorporate good productions in their programs, but small enough to permit film festival tourists access to the receptions, film directors, critics, local notables involved in organizing the festival, and other interesting festival participants. To quote Laurie Kirby, who directs the Newport International Film Festival and the California-based Ojai Music Festival, “For a culture raised on the medium film, a natural synergy arises between outstanding cinema and tourist destinations when arranging vacations.” In cooperation with local travel agencies, these festivals can develop cross marketing strategies with effective appeals to the diverse interests of film festival tourists without standardizing their offers. Services can range from a highly individualized, though expensive, program including a local escort (or film coach) for a single cinema tourist to a package for small groups of individuals for participating in the film festival tour guided by a knowledgeable individual.

Claus Mueller, New York Correspondent is bringing you more insight into the festival economy and the digital direction it is taking. Check on the IFFS blog on
We were asked recently to moderate a few panels at the festival summit in London on festival funding and sponsorship.

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