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VOL. 125 | NO. 44 | Friday, March 5, 2010

Focus on Film Means Business

JOE BOONE | Special to The Daily News

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Film festival veteran Erik Jambor, the first full-time director of the Indie Memphis Film Festival, speaks about the economic benefits of film festivals to a Memphis Chamber breakfast forum at the Memphis Cook Convention Center on Thursday morning. Photo: Lance Murphey

Erik Jambor lauded the economic impact film festivals have on communities nationwide and emphasized the potential that local events can have on Memphis.

Jambor, the executive director of Indie Memphis, noted Memphis’s international reputation as a creative city during his keynote presentation to the Greater Memphis Chamber’s Breakfast Forum Thursday morning.

“Festivals enhance the cultural life of a city,” Jambor said before a packed ballroom at the Cook Convention Center. “We have judges and special guests who fall in love with Memphis and want to come back. It’s a pattern we see over and over.”

Jambor cited the tremendous boon that film festivals provide cities such as Austin, Texas, and Park City, Utah, which host the South By Southwest and Sundance Film Festival, respectively.

Indie Memphis 2009 attracted 7,000 attendees, a figure that has increased 80 percent since Jambor’s arrival. He had previously headed the Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Ala.

“Over Erik’s eight-year time with Sidewalk, it evolved from just another city festival to an event with a solid national reputation and a million dollar economic impact number to show for the weekend event,” said Alan Hunter, board president of Sidewalk and former MTV VJ.

Jambor presented the festival budgets and estimated impacts of other cities such as Nashville and Atlanta, noting that Memphis, for its size in attendance, is under funded and could contribute much more to the local economy.

A study by Utah’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research showed that the 2008 Sundance Film Festival injected $92 million into the local economy. That figure was based on attendance of more than 40,000 people.

The festival created nearly 2,000 jobs and netted nearly $4 million in state tax revenues. For the year ending February 2009, Sundance generated media attention valued at more than $8 million.

Indie Memphis’ budget for 2009 was $180,000, less than Birmingham or Nashville.

Memphis, which Jambor said should have an advantage as a cultural destination, must realize that film festivals provide a sense of culture and community, which is essential to attracting young entrepreneurial talent.

This is not lost on festival sponsors who see the value of fostering a creative community.

“We love being a part of Indie Memphis,” said Eric Christopherson, creative director of local ad agency Combustion. “Their independent, creative spirit is something we can really appreciate.

“Any time you get a chance to assist someone trying to foster art and vitality in this city, you’d be crazy not to jump in.”

Linn Sitler, Memphis & Shelby County Film Commissioner, said: “Indie Memphis provides great screening opportunities for Memphis’ emerging filmmakers. Historically it has provided them with a venue for social and professional exchange.”

Jambor said he has not lost sight of Memphis’s compelling cultural identity, noting the city’s tradition of independently produced media such as Stax’s work for Atlantic and Chips Moman’s revival of Elvis for RCA.

“They put on a great festival,” director Kirt Gunn said of Indie Memphis. “The schedule has become one of the best in the region, but they also integrate Memphis into the festival.

“I know it sounds obvious that the culture and the community should be an integral part of a film festival, but it’s rarely the case,” said Gunn, who screened his feature “Lovely By Surprise” in 2009. “Erik has filled every minute of the festival with the things that make Memphis unique.”

Gunn has also done work for Volvo, Intel and Ford among others.

With film dominating 20th century media and festivals, critics, directors and producers were given important face time in an era before e-mail. This concentration of insight gave them cultural cache, and festivals still influence the Oscars and box office.

Recently, the studios’ grip has loosened as video technology reached the creative class first and eventually the masses.

When Stephen Soderbergh released the appropriately titled “Sex, Lies and Videotape” in 1989, Roger Ebert called him the “poster boy of the Sundance generation.”

Wobbly cameras came in, lighting went out. The film took the Palm d’Or at Cannes and set off the explosion of independent American cinema.

Craig Brewer, Memphis’ most successful auteur, typifies the way Hollywood money finds talent in this post-studio environment. His early films screened in local festivals and he broke big at Sundance in 2005 with Hustle & Flow.

Other Memphis festivals include On Location: Memphis (formerly the Memphis International Film Festival); Outflix International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival; and The Memphis Film Festival (a Western-oriented event).

The University of Memphis and The Brooks Museum of Art frequently feature individual films and series.

Jambor said Memphis can leverage its brand and grow into a cultural force if enough sponsors see the real economic benefit.

“So we find ourselves at a tipping point,” he said. “Do we settle back to where we were for so many years before? Or do we seize the opportunity to use this momentum to push beyond national accolades and magazine rankings to build for Memphis a festival on equal footing with those in Nashville, Atlanta and Birmingham – one that can  have actual, long-lasting economic impact?

“I think the answer is obvious, and the time is now.”

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