Roadtrip Hits Cleveland

The continuing adventures of Docs In Progress Executive Director Erica Ginsberg as she travels through the midwest en route to the 2012 NAMAC Conference and stops along the way to learn more about film communities in different cities.


I was not expecting to find a huge film community in Cleveland.

I had been prepared for this by Laura Paglin, a local filmmaker whose works spotlighted disaffected communities in the city (No Umbrella - Election Day in the City;  Facing Forward).  We had met virtually through an online documentary film community, The D-Word and had only met one other time face to face - when she attended Silverdocs a few years ago.  She was the only documentary filmmaker in Cleveland I knew of, and she noted it was not a large community, but would do her best to bring together a group of filmmakers to talk to me while I was there. Indeed she did -- we met for drinks and pizza and had to bring two tables together to fit us all.

Cleveland is probably one of the few cities on my journey which does not have a formalized organization for filmmakers in spite of having a strong film-going community.  Yes this is the hometown of Wes Craven and Joe Estzerhas and Jim Jarmusch hails from nearby Akron, but, from the outside, it appeared few if any filmmakers stay in Cleveland.  If they want to make it, they need to go to New York or L.A.  Even documentary filmmakers.

But this is a bit of a myth.  In fact, the group I met is a small and enthusiastic group of filmmakers who make a living from producing commercials, nonprofit videos, and documentary works-for-hire or teaching at local higher education institutions, such as Cleveland State University and a remarkably vibrant community college film program at Cuyahoga Community College (aka Tri-C).  They stay in Cleveland for a variety of reasons -- it's where they are from, a spouse's job, the relatively low cost of living,  and being a good place to raise kids.

It's also a city which appreciates the arts.  Buoyed by a county cigarette tax, there is significant funding for local arts organinizations and individual artists.  While film always has a challenge being viewed the same as other art forms, some of the filmmakers I met with had indeed received local support for their projects. Presumably this is also easier when there is less competition than there might be in a large arts center like New York or Chicago.

Cleveland also appears to have a population interested in film with several arthouse theaters and a downtown movie complex which had somehow survived even as the city's downtown had fallen on hard times.  Those downtown theaters play host to the Cleveland International Film Festival (CIFF), a major regional film festival which had recently celebrated its 36th year and had increased its attendance by nearly 150% in the past decade, even as Cleveland was second only to Detroit in its population loss.

The morning after I met with the filmmakers, I had a chance to meet with Marcie Goodman, the Executive Director of the Cleveland Film Society (which puts on CIFF) to find out a little bit more about their approach as a festival and how it fits in to the broader film community.  In contrast to Pittsburgh Filmmakers which organizes the Three Rivers Festival as one part of a much broader mission, the Cleveland Film Society has a mission focused only on producing CIFF.  A year-round staff of seven is complemented by 125 seasonal staff and more than 600 volunteers to put on the 11-day festival (which will be expanding to a 12th day in 2013 to accommodate even more films).  The festival is usually held in late March or early April.

CIFF's sustainability has been rooted in its ability to diversify its income, with nearly 40% coming from earned revenue (ticket sales, submissions fees and memberships) and the remainder from grants, sponsorships, and an annual campaign.  One thing which seemed to set CIFF apart from other festivals with which I am familiar is that they conduct their annual fundraising campaign during the festival itself rather than waiting until the end of the year.  While this could be seen as a risky move to ask patrons to chip in more money when they are already paying for tickets or voucher packages, this approach allows them to draw on the energy of the festival itself.  Asking patrons to contribute to their Challenge Match to match support from local arts council, CIFF was able in 2012 to surpass their $75,000 goal, raising nearly $89,000.

They also have had success with sponsorships at a time when many arts organizations in other cities are seeing declines in corporate sponsorships.  As Goodman joked, "Everything is nameable."  they have worked hard to engage existing and potential sponsors, holding "Movie Match-Up" meetings around the time they are finalizing their program so that sponsors can have some say in what they want to sponsor; providing sponsorships of each day of the festival, and even thinking outside of the box (for example, getting the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District to sponsor the festival's restrooms).

Although the festival puts together special programs within the festival which engage high school students and spotlight local filmmakers and local nonprofits, it does not engage in much year-round programming.  Goodman is firm on not allowing the festival to suffer from "mission creep."  At one time, the Cleveland Film Society offered filmmaking classes and workshops but that was in the days before the universities started offering filmmaking programs.

While this makes sense, it does return us to the issue that there is not really a formalized filmmaker-focused organization in Cleveland.  The other major film organization, the Greater Cleveland Film Commission is primarily tasked with attracting large feature film productions to the area (like many midwestern states, Ohio does have a film production tax incentive).  It does run monthly film industry mixers, but the filmmakers I met said these were great if you were looking for actors or crew or just wanted a fun networking night, but were not necessarily as useful for the documentary community.

There seemed to be an impression among some of the filmmakers I met that a film community requires some sort of formal organization or funding.  In fact, as I sat there on that pleasant Cleveland summer night in a beer garden in the equally pleasant neighborhood of Tremont with these filmmakers, I remarked that this was really all it took.

There seemed to be so much energy around that table, just coming from eight people who mostly knew each other, but said they rarely had opportunities to get together and catch up.  The academics shared ideas.  Laura gave another filmmaker feedback on a script.  We all discussed national funding and outreach strategies.  Even though it was a "school night," the evening went late and people seemed to enjoy it.

My challenge for them was to keep doing it.  Just get together. Talk. Vent. Laugh. Exchange ideas. Recommend people you've worked with.  Share information about your latest projects.  Drink cheap beer. Or coffee. Or soda. Talk about things which have nothing to do with film and everything to do with building a community.  Do it monthly. Do it quarterly.  Just do something.  All it takes are a few e-mail address or phone numbers and carving out a little time to get together in some public place.

Yes Cleveland you can do it.  And for anyone out there who is reading this and is living in a city which is under-served by filmmaker-focused organizations, remember YOU are the filmmaker focused organization.

Onward I go.  Next stop: Chicago...

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.