As Film at Lincoln Center and More Lay Off Staff, Film Non-Profits Put Competition Aside

This has been a tough week for many businesses, and film organizations have not been immune. Today, Film at Lincoln Center became the latest organization hit hard by the closures of recent weeks, as half of its 50-person full-time staff and all of its part-time staff was furloughed or laid off. In a statement to IndieWire, executive director Lesli Klainberg said the move was “a decision we struggled with and did not take lightly,” adding, “While these actions are very painful in the short-term, we know that eventually, we will be on the other side of this crisis, and because we’ve made these hard choices now we will be well-positioned to thrive again when that time comes.”

Lincoln Center is not alone. On March 12, the Austin Film Society had much to celebrate. The 35-year-old nonprofit founded by Richard Linklater celebrated its 20th edition of the Texas Film Awards with honorees that included Shelley Duvall and Erykah Badu. The fundraiser pulled in $380,000, around 70 percent of its goal. But storm clouds were gathering. “It was beautiful, as it always is, but it was very much a last hurrah,” AFS CEO Rebecca Campbell said this week. “That event closed a chapter.”

The next day, as multiple cities reacted to the spread of coronavirus, Austin mayor Steve Adler banned events with 250 people or more. By March 17, AFS closed its three-year-old arthouse cinema; by March 24, the organization laid off a third of its permanent staff across every department, as well as its 29 part-time employees. “I’ve worked with my staff to make some sweeping changes to our programs and operations,” Campbell said in a statement to AFS members, “so that AFS can survive this period and thrive in the long run.”

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It’s a whiplash felt at film nonprofits across North America that are built around film festivals, year-round screenings, and educational initiatives. Seattle’s SIFF was preparing for the 46th edition of its sprawling May festival when it had to close its permanent venue. This week, the organization dwindled to a skeleton crew, cutting a staff of 72 down to fewer than 10.

“We don’t have a clear path forward,” said SIFF artistic director Beth Barrett. “We will be down to a skeleton staff that will keep the organization moving forward, and doing some interesting thinking about what the future holds.”

Dozens of organizations with strong local followings now find themselves in similar dire straights. In conversations over the past week, many executives sounded despondent and emotional as they reeled from pressure to cut staff and cancel flagship programs. At the same time, they were encouraged by recent communal efforts, as well as the $2 trillion rescue package passed in the House this week. The bill extends unemployment payments by $600 per week and makes small business loans available to nonprofits.

Still, many questions remain unanswered, and institutions that sometimes compete with one another are working together. On Wednesday, the Sundance Institute organized a Zoom video conference with about three dozen representatives from film nonprofits across North America to talk through their grievances and share intel about their strategies, from staff cuts to virtual screening programs.

“Everyone is scrambling to figure out what the new norm is,” said Caroline Von Kuhn, director of Sundance’s Catalyst program. “The goal was to figure out what we should define as our priority right now — both for each organization and in the strategic conversations about what our filmmaker community needs.”

While Sundance’s January festival was unaffected, many of its summer workshops were forced to migrate online, while the festival’s London and Hong Kong offshoots are postponed. “We’re doing similar calls with producers, distributors, agencies,” Von Kuhn said, adding that future calls with nonprofit leaders may extend to other countries. “We’re looking at each of the areas of the industry that make up that landscape and understanding how the models that are shifting and how we can be a service at this time.”

The Egyptian Theatre during the Sundance Film Festival, in Park City, Utah

Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Many of the participants in the inaugural field-building call said it gave them encouragement that organizations could work through their individual problems together. “It was comforting and producing to come together, like group therapy,” said TIFF executive director Joanna Vicente, whose organization closed its Bell Lightbox Cinema last week. “While we are different organizations with different scales of operation, we’re all dealing with the same issues. … I think it left us all feeling hopeful about the future.”

The Sundance call was one of several recent efforts by cultural centers to get on the same page, and has lead to a dramatic acceleration of new ideas. Jolene Pinder, the new executive director at Chicago-based documentary production outfit Kartemquin Films, also participated in a call with the Alliance of Media Arts + Culture. “People are dealing with really immediate, acute challenges — cash flow, paying staff, interventions to ensure the organization can survive this,” she said. “But there is also this sentiment that our relationship between our independent space and the commercial world has to change.”

Specifically, Pinder added, the superiority of streaming platforms for a stay-at-home country could provide a fresh set of resources for many organizations. Kartemquin’s Hulu Accelerator Program launched in January, an initiative that builds off  Hulu’s release of Kartemquin’s “Minding the Gap” and will allocate a $20,000 grant to filmmakers of color who went through the organization’s documentary labs. Hulu also gets first look at the final product. “Streamers are definitely answering a need,” Pinder said. “How we engage with them from an organizational space has to look different.”

While Kartemquin has yet to lay off any of its 11 full-time and two part-time staff, the organization has faced one of the more personal impacts of the recent crisis. Last week, Kartemquin founder and veteran documentary filmmaker Gordon Quinn was hospitalized after testing positive for coronavirus. “He is someone through time has been such a strong advocate for film in the 54 years that Kartemquin has existed,” Pinder said. “He has often been an organizer. His spirit has been to be a part of the larger conversations, so that’s part of our DNA, and we’re doing it.”

Like Pinder, SFFILM executive director Anne Lai just started her job; three weeks in, she has already seen the cancellation of April’s film festival and is now working to preserve the organiziation’s artists and education programs for the rest of the year. “Everyone is getting inventive,” Lai said. “We’re moving out of the triage phase of cancellations and more into the long-term questions about the rest of the year.”

As the first film festival in U.S. history, the San Francisco event has long prided itself on having a unique identity that both serves local audiences and the industry as a whole. “We’re in a world where a whole bunch of organizations are trying to figure what we’re going to do,” said veteran programming director Rachel Rosen, who was set to finish up her time at the festival this year. “It’s all about figuring that out without being duplicative of each other.”

Some organizations have begun to transform programs into virtual experiences and taking in-person workshops online. The Film Festival Alliance launched a pledge with Seed&Spark for regional festivals to go online, and the Art House Convergence has been organizing a relief fund. However, these efforts have yet to supplant the cataclysmic loss in revenue that comes from closing theaters.

Brooklyn’s BAM Film had to furlough 30 employees this month, and vice president Gina Duncan projected a monthly loss of over $260,000 as long as its theaters remained closed. The organization also canceled BAMcinemaFest, which was scheduled to take place in June.

“It breaks my heart that we had to cancel BAMcinemaFest as opposed to postponing it, but there were just too many variables that made pinning down a new date impossible in this moment,” Duncan said. “I am also choosing to view this moment as an opportunity to reassess the model we, and most rep cinemas, have been working from for decades.” Duncan added that she had been heartened by recent conversations with New York’s Cultural Institutions Group. “I’ve never once felt alone in this,” she said.

The cancelation of the summertime BAMcinemaFest warns fall film events that they can’t assume the pandemic’s impacts will recede by then. That includes IFP, which holds its longstanding IFP Week for filmmakers in Brooklyn each September. Executive director Jeff Sharp, who also participated in the Sundance call, said he was eying the contingency plan of virtual events if the usual schedule of conversations and workshops couldn’t go forward.

“We’ve got to come to our sponsors with something that feels definitive,” he said. “In all this uncertainty, it’s best to push forward with something that feels concrete.” Sharp echoed the sense of support from the Sundance call. “We’ve felt a real circling of the wagons in terms of our colleagues,” he said. “The severity of this crisis is being felt equally. It doesn’t matter if you’re a giant org with 200 people on staff or someone like IFP with 20. That sense of community and shared concern is always there but deeply meaningful at a time like this.”

Klainberg, who participated in the Sundance call ahead of its layoffs on Friday, echoed that sentiment. “We are finding creative solutions in our community,” she said. “The ideas being explored in collaboration with our peers give us hope for the world after COVID-19.”

Denver Film Society executive director Britta Erickson hopes the Denver Film Festival in November will be an opportunity to help organizations impacted earlier in the year. “I think if everyone is rescheduling things for the fall it’s going to look really busy, and there’s going to be a lot of collaborating between film organizations to help each out,” she said, noting that the closure of the film society’s year-round theater had resulted in the layoff of 20 part-timers, but none of the full-time staff. “I would love for us to come back really strong in the fall together. If we don’t, none of us survive.”

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