On the Red Carpet of Jewish Film Festivals and in the Red

Jewish film festivals have maintained their popularity during the global economic downturn, but maintaining profits has proved tougher.

When the going gets tough, the tough go to the movies. In good times and in bad, the cinema can pack 'em in, because as Helen Zukerman, founder and executive director of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival says, "It's still the cheapest form of entertainment out there."

This may explain why despite a global recession and sharp cutbacks in funding for Jewish arts and culture, Jewish film festivals are more thriving than ever.

"When a group of us got together to try to figure out the best way to share Jewish culture, we reached the conclusion that film was a good a medium because it was popular, affordable and you can show lots of different things," explains Dr. Dan Grander, founder and director and of the Swedish Jewish Film Festival.

Paying licensing fees to screen 20-30 films costs considerably less than it would to cover travel and other expenses for an entire orchestra or opera, he notes, and because film has more of a mass appeal, it's easier to fill the house.

Not that there aren't other costs involved. Brochures need to be prepared, advertising fees need to be covered, and there are the travel expenses for visiting filmmakers.

Most film fest directors say that tickets sales barely cover one-third of their costs. Based on figures gathered by the Jewish Film Presenters Network, the average cost of running a Jewish film festival is just under $120,000, but there are exceptions. Some of the smaller fests are made on a shoestring, costing just a few thousand dollars, while at the glitzier events in America's biggest cities, that $120,000 will barely cover the opening night gala.

No matter how fancy your festival, though, don't expect to get rich from it. "If you're doing it right, you're probably not going to be making money," says Yitzi Zablocki, head of the Jewish Film Presenters Network.

When Bernie Madoff defrauded thousands of investors of billions of dollars, Jewish film fests absorbed some of the first blows. Many of these film festivals' best supporters and sponsors had their fortunes squandered by Madoff's notorious Ponzi scheme.

But there's no business like show business, and most, if not all of these fests have found their way back to the red carpet.

Some festivals that could no longer afford the standard licensing fees found that distributors were willing to accommodate them. Neil Friedman, who runs Menemsha Films, a Los Angeles-based distributor of Jewish films, says that in many cases licensing fees are now determined on the basis of ability to pay.

"If in the past we could charge $750 for a screening, now we ask for $275 or even $175. For us, it's important that folks in places that don't have big budgets also get to see these films," he says.

"There's money in this business, but not what there used to be," says Hedva Goldschmidt, who runs Go2Films, a Jerusalem-based distributor. "We can't demand the prices today that we used to get. There's definitely a Madoff effect."

Some of the bigger festivals, like the Washington Jewish Film Festival, had to start scrambling around for other sources of income.

"When the bottom fell out in the Jewish philanthropy world, we had new donors step up, many of them smaller," says director Susan Barocas. "We have also come to rely a lot on in-kind donations." Last year, she notes, the festival raised $60,000 in in-kind donations, which took the form of waived licensing fees along with comped airline tickets and restaurant meals for visiting guests.

Those who, like Barocas, run festivals in big cities say one of the advantages is being able to tap into foreign embassies, consulates and cultural organizations for sponsorships and co-sponsorships of Jewish films that strike a chord with their particular countries.

The Toronto Jewish Film Festival has also come to rely increasingly on in-kind contributions, says Zukerman, who started the festival with funds from her own family's foundation. As part of its own cost-cutting strategy, she says, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival doesn't invite as many guests as it once did. And they're using technology to further trim the tab. "We've started holding some of our post-screening discussions via Skype," she says.

The Mandell Jewish Film Festival in Hartford, which director Harriet Dobin calls a "mid-sized Jewish festival that takes a big-sized view," partnered up with 35 local organizations last year to help finance the event. The fest's annual revenues, she says, allow the Hartford JCC to fund a plethora of other cultural events throughout the year.

Howard Elias, founder and director of the Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival, relies on grants from the local Jewish community, as well as Chinese charities, to fund his annual showing. "We couldn't show these film here without subtitles in Chinese, and the Chinese foundations are willing to put up money for that," he says.

Twelve years ago, billionaire Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot, put up the cash to fund the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, which is run by his son, Kenny. Having deep pockets to dig into has helped this festival grow into the biggest Jewish film festival in Atlanta and the second-biggest in the whole United States.

Along with the distributors and ticket-sellers, filmmakers also have a stake in the business. Many have found that Jewish film festivals are a great platform for showcasing their work, if for no other reason than that they pay, which is generally not the case with other film fests.

"The Jewish film festivals are the most vital market for Israeli cinema," says Ravit Turjeman, who runs Dragoman films, which distributes Israeli films in North America. "Oftentimes, even films which receive a wider, theatrical release or TV broadcast find that the only market they can actually see profit from is the Jewish-paying film festival circuit."