Lights, Camera, Distraction

The Miami International Film Festival -- homeless, cash-strapped, and debt-ridden -- focuses on survival

The Miami International Film Festival took eighteen years to become a legitimate, beloved cultural event, the kind of thing people eagerly anticipate all year. It took just three years, under the sponsorship of Florida International University, for the festival to morph into a celluloid-steroid behemoth, wobbling on the brink of either international renown or a collapse under its own weight.

Citing financial burdens, FIU unceremoniously jettisoned the festival in July and is now hoping to have Miami-Dade Community College take responsibility for the event. People familiar with the FIU-MDCC negotiations believe they are nearly complete. "It does look like it's going to happen," says Seth Gordon, head of Miami's Arts and Entertainment Council and a former chairman of the film festival. "Eduardo Padrón [MDCC president] wants to take it, but I don't think he wants to look like he's taken on a sinking ship, so he probably wants to secure some [sponsorship] sugar daddies before he announces anything."

Over the years, Miami's film festival, like all such festivals, has relied to a greater or lesser degree on financial contributions and in-kind services from sponsors. But now the need is acute. MDCC, with a budget roughly half that of FIU, is not expected to provide nearly as much monetary support for an event that cost $1.4 million to produce in 2003. And given the poor economic climate, corporate sponsors are not as likely to pony up as they have in more prosperous times.

Festival director Nicole Guillemet has her work cut out for her, and former director Nat Chediak (inset) is glad it's not his problem
Steve Satterwhite
Festival director Nicole Guillemet has her work cut out for her, and former director Nat Chediak (inset) is glad it's not his problem

Certainly the state government won't be rushing to the rescue. Earlier this year the legislature slashed its overall arts budget by two-thirds. (FIU's loss of $20 million in general state funding was one reason it booted the festival.) Today all cultural groups are clamoring for their slice of a very small pie.

The gloomy financial picture only compounds the turbulence created by FIU's decision to dump. With opening-night curtain scheduled to rise January 30, and the deadline for entries looming early next month, organizers face daunting tasks: Restructure around a new home base, work within a stripped-down budget, and secure even more sponsors than in the past. But the climate of uncertainty seems to be permeating everything and everyone involved with the festival. "We'd love to be a sponsor again, but we haven't heard from them yet," says Fran Vaccaro, vice president of the Taglairino Advertising Group, one of the festival's sponsors last year. "We're not even sure where they're going to wind up."

Festival founder Nat Chediak does his best to sound very sad about all this, but he just can't resist a quick jab. "I left behind a good legacy and an excess of $200,000 in the coffers," he says. "Two years later they're 800 grand in the hole. Simple math tells me they've lost a million dollars in the two years I've been away." Initially Chediak welcomed FIU's involvement with the festival, which began in 1999. But by 2001 disagreements over artistic direction and FIU's plans to dramatically expand the event prompted his departure.

For years Chediak embodied the public face and aesthetic sensibilities of the festival. His clash with the new team of players from FIU left many faithful festivalgoers feeling betrayed. Their anger and Chediak's decision to leave were seemingly validated the next year, when the event doubled in size, spread out among multiple venues, drew numerous complaints, and elicited bad reviews in the press. Logistical snafus abounded. Attendance took a dive. Costs soared. Former Internet journalist David Poland, hired as Chediak's replacement, was summarily fired in the aftermath. (Local film lovers' simmering frustrations erupted to the surface on the opening night of the 2003 festival when Chediak's contributions were honored in a welcoming speech. Audience members at downtown's Gusman theater roared their approval more loudly than they did for any of the subsequent films.)

Enter Nicole Guillemet, late of the renowned Sundance Film Festival, where she was one of several co-directors. Guillemet, hired as director of Miami's festival in July of last year, was quickly cast in the role of savior, an appellation borne out, at least in part, by enthusiastic press coverage and a spike in attendance at this year's event. The mood had swung from bitterness to hopefulness that the event would eventually become exactly what one would expect of a film festival in Miami -- a showcase for an array of cinema, emphasizing Spanish-language fare, and bridging the gap between Spanish- and Portuguese-language filmmakers and American producers and distributors.

Now Guillemet and her staff must put together an event that lives up to expectations while avoiding the fiscal mismanagement that torpedoed FIU's involvement. (Over the past two years, the festival accumulated some $800,000 in red ink, $500,000 of it in 2003 alone. FIU is expected to absorb those debts.) That's a tall order, and one wonders whether Guillemet, whose credentials qualify her to work with any number of festivals that aren't flirting with disaster, has found a minute or two in her busy schedule to tweak her résumé.

Of course that's pure speculation, something not lacking in the weeks since FIU announced its decision to unload the event. Everyone directly involved -- festival staff, FIU employees, and MDCC representatives -- is under orders to clam up until an announcement is made, perhaps soon. In that informational vacuum, rumors have flourished: The festival is going to disappear altogether; or perhaps it's headed for the University of Miami; and as has been the case since the day Chediak left, some have been talking about his comeback. One source close to the current machinations, who asked not to be identified, insists that Eduardo Padrón recently had lunch with Chediak and asked him to return to the festival as a presenter and programmer. Chediak denies it: "I haven't had to turn anything down because no one has asked me to be involved again."

While Chediak has a devoted local following, Guillemet has national, and some would say international, cachet. Seth Gordon says he doubts that fact has escaped Padrón: "He'll probably want to keep one eye on her -- to make sure she's happy enough to stay onboard."

 
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