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Newport International: Laurie B. Kirby interview

Established in 1998, and now in its ninth year, The Newport International Film Festival NIFF has grown into one of America's leading regional film festivals. The Festival, which critics have called a "low key Cannes," has distinguished itself as one where, according to Vanity Fair "art ranks before commerce". Over 10,000 filmmakers, celebrities, journalists, and film enthusiasts of all kinds attend drawn by the less frenzied, less commercial, and more intimate environment that the Newport fest offers. Like other major national or regional festivals, Newport is experiencing a dramatic increase in the number of films submitted reaching over 700 by the end of April 2006. The 2006 Newport International Film Festival runs from June 6 – June 11.
The festival is helmed by Laurie B. Kirby who has the rare distinction among film festival directors of also being a lawyer by training. Claus Mueller, our New York Correspondent, carried out the interview.

What are the growth rates of your festival with respect to films selected, the audience and your budget?
We have over 100 films and five screens during the Festival. We have doubled our ticket sales in the last 8 years. Last year alone we saw a 10% increase in ticket sales. The budget has also doubled since its inception
to reach about $ 1 million, including the value of in kind contributions

What is your funding formula?
Fifty percent comes from the private corporate sector, thirteen percent from individual donations, about ten percent is derived from foundation & other public sources, three percent from our members, and twenty five percent from admissions

Any changes in these revenue streams since NIFF inception?
The largest increase has been in ticket sales, yet individual and corporate sponsorship remain the backbone of the festival.

What were your fund raising approaches in past years which did not really work?
Although it is exciting to bring in talent, it is often a loss leader. They do add buzz and publicity.

Which mistakes are made by other film festivals trying to raise money?
I really cannot answer that but I do believe we probably have the same challenges in bringing in stars as it can get very expensive.

What are the single most important reasons for corporations to provide support to NIFF?
Corporations can benefit from the halo effect that a prestigious and socially conscious festival provides. The films we program are the best in independent film. The filmmakers are abundant and accessible here and the atmosphere is stimulating yet easygoing. It is wonderful for client entertainment; product sampling and we have [audience] demographics which are attractive to many sponsors.

What are the single most important reasons for public funders to provide support to NIFF?
We are providing a venue for the most important media today, thus get the message out on such topics as immigration, the environment and other socially important issues.

What are the single most important reasons for individuals to provide money to NIFF?
So that we can continue to be a mouthpiece for artists and filmmakers to express their viewpoints without worrying about commercialism. The experience at the NIFF can be educational and entertaining, provocative and soothing.

From your executive director’s point of view what is the greatest asset of the NIFF?
Newport is one of the most beautiful seaside communities in the world. We have been compared to Cannes and the Riviera. It is a culturally rich city with beautiful architecture, rich history with wonderful amenities. We have some of the best restaurants and hotels in the country.

Apart from your fund raising event in Paris, what makes the NIFF fundraising different from that of other similar fests?
Last year we held an auction that generated over $60,000 because we were able to cultivate the most exciting and desirable auction packages that included film roles, a trip to Paris and other unique prizes.

Are you connecting your funding appeals to specific NIFF projects / components?
Yes, we have a community outreach program that I am very proud of. We bring children in from our underserved population (Newport has a very large population that lives below the poverty line) to the theatres where they get to experience films and meet the directors. We also have a high school student jury lead by a professional film critic Gerald Peary.

What other cultural institutions in Rhode Island / the Newport area are your competitors for scarce financial resources?
I don't like the word competitors. Each of these institutions serves very important functions and we are lucky to have them here. That said, there are many dance organizations, film societies, art museums and preservation groups in Newport.

There has been a rapid expansion in the number of national, regional, even local film festivals and growing competition for support…. has this had an impact on your fundraising ?
Of course Tribeca and Sundance are always able to garner major support. We do compete for the same national sponsors. However, our identity is entirely different from those events. What we have seen is that once the sponsor, filmmaker, celebrity or audience member experiences the festival, they're hooked on us.

Has your festival ever had a sponsor trying to influence your programming?
I can't imagine a sponsor even attempting such a thing. The sponsors I deal with are sophisticated and understand the boundaries between church and state so I don't believe that would ever occur. That said, once content is established, I often bring it to sponsors to get them interested and on board.

Did you ever turn down a sponsor?
I have never met a sponsor I didn't like or that couldn't somehow fit our Festival. We are fortunate as our typical sponsor is Kodak, Delta Air Lines, Godiva, Volvo and other high end corporate brands. Actually, when the festival started we were offered a paltry sum for a to-be-unnamed title corporate sponsor unbefitting to Newport.

What fund raising strategy would you suggest to someone trying to set up a new festival?
Establish a realistic budget and stick with it, get as much in-kind support as you can and learn to beg, beg, beg!

Thank you

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