Success was apparent. The metropolitan area’s urban core buzzed with film fans who flocked in for the weekend-long festival. Area corporations and educational institutions were on board. Audiences snaked into numerous venues, art museums, the educational science center and other cooperating locales. The hub was an exquisitely restored 1927 theater, built in grand opera-house style.
Energy was fantastic. Money changed hands. Folks fell in love with the city center.
Downtown Mobile? Regretfully not.
Birmingham’s 20th annual Sidewalk Film Festival continued its upward trajectory with panache in late August. Artifice wasn’t there but knows others who were.
The festival’s success provides good comparison for similar efforts here in Alabama’s second-largest metro area. Mobile’s South Alabama (SoAL) Film Festival premiered in 2009, spurred on chiefly through the efforts of Charles and Hailee Kuntz and a small crew of board members eager to add a jewel to Mobile’s cultural crown.
Like similar arts endeavors, their efforts were valiant but primarily limited by manpower and capital. They operated under the umbrella of Mobile Arts Council and cobbled together what they could, utilizing the Crescent Theater, the downtown library’s Bernheim Hall, the Gulf Coast Exploreum and Five Rivers Delta Resource Center.
Despite their diligence, SoAL struggled. They changed the title to the Hurricane Film Festival and moved it away from football season, but could only manage one last hurrah in 2015 before the demands of careers and family finally took their toll. SoAL was SOL.
Like SoAL, Sidewalk started with a handful of organizers. How have they ended up with an audience reach of 14,000 and an annual economic impact of $1.4 million? How have they just announced a new, permanent home in downtown Birmingham with multiple theaters, an education space, a lounge and upscale concessions?
Sidewalk’s organizers have a couple of innate advantages. First, their location in the region is an easy draw for attendees from every compass point. It is within a few hours’ driving distance from the Gulf Coast, Nashville, Atlanta and Memphis. Conversely, Mobile’s abutment to the Gulf means SoAL can only draw from the west, north and east. Draw a wide circle around Mobile and half of what you see is unpopulated water.
Birmingham’s metropolitan area has more than twice Mobile’s population. That’s a lot of potential attendees. Even more vital, it makes for a lot of potential volunteers.
One Artifice contact boasting a long relationship with Sidewalk said they use close to 750 volunteers. They described the force as organized and informed. Sidewalk stays engaged with those volunteers throughout the entire calendar year, throwing parties, providing swag, making sure they feel engaged and invested.
What makes all that possible is sponsorship. The website for Sidewalk listed nearly 100 sponsors, including Regions Bank, Books-A-Million, Spire, Birmingham Business Journal, Greater Birmingham Convention and Visitors Bureau, Alabama School of Fine Arts, Birmingham-Southern College, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Birmingham Museum of Art, Coca-Cola Bottling, Golden Flake, Alabama State Council on the Arts, plus numerous local businesses, organizations and nonprofits.
That makes for a decent budget to pay staffers, 16 of them according to the festival’s website. That makes a gigantic difference.
One enormous symbolic difference comes from city hall. Birmingham’s mayor spoke at the Alabama Theatre before the first screening to “kick off the festival proper.” It reflected appreciation and bestowed the city government’s blessing.
A former SoAL organizer told Artifice, “Every year we sent invitations to the City Council and the mayor’s office and never got any acknowledgement or participation.” Color Artifice unsurprised.
A Fairhope group started its own film festival in 2013, a four-screen November event that’s lasted five years now. Owing to vagaries that helped Fairhope’s arts and crafts festival survive 60-plus years, it has a good shot at perseverance.
There are lessons in the SoAL-Sidewalk comparison for all nonprofits, especially of the cultural variety. While the end product and accomplishment can be fulfilling, keeping them going is nonglamorous work. It takes a lot of paperwork and time. Without sponsorships and capital to hire professionals, too much depends on the sacrifices of too few.
Volunteers should be courted and cultivated. They need to feel as if they are fulfilling an important and fun role. They need to know they’re appreciated.
Most importantly — especially in a place again dealing with withering public sector support for cultural pursuits — city leaders need to show the inherent value of these pursuits. If they treat their constituents’ hard work as a frivolity not worth a modicum of recognition, it’s not flattering, in any regard or from any perspective.