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Film Festival Tourism

The continued expansion of film festivals and their financial support by public authorities is well known. There are clear economic and political benefits derived from investing in cultural events since more visitors come to the venue of the festival and support the local economy through expenditures on lodging, meals, local products and other leisure activities. Further, support for the arts is an appealing political activity since there are no controversies involved and provides prestige for those who are involved. Policy makers also realize that in the increasingly complex tourism business destination marketing has become essential.

This development has to be placed into the context of cultural tourism, that is the attraction which museums, historical sites, concerts, large art exhibits and other cultural events offer. Whereas cultural tourism was pretty much restricted to economic elites and special interest groups during most of the past century, it has developed into a significant niche activity for the rapidly expanding upper middle class over the last decades. Film tourism refers to the appeal of locations where well known feature films or televisions series were made. New Zealand benefited from movie-based holiday packages centering on the film set for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the so-called set-jetting phenomenon. Film tourism also includes amusement parks with special block buster movies sections or film studio theme parks. . The consumption of ‘soft’ cultural products ranging from events to visual representations has become an integral part of the upper middle class life style as is the greater acceptance of having this consumption packaged by external agents. Given the image orientation of our societies both film and film festival tourism have taken on a growing significance in the field of cultural tourism.

What however is a relatively recent phenomenon is film festival tourism. It refers to the organized effort to use film festivals as a central incentive to attract cultural tourists or consumers in addition to the film professionals, like buyers, filmmakers and actors, drawn by the theme or the importance of the festival for the film industry. Numerous studies demonstrate the contribution cultural tourism makes to the local economy but few focus specifically on the economic impact of film festival tourism

Among the exceptions are an economic impact study carried out this year for the Santa Barbara County Convention revealing that the annual ten-day Santa Barbara Film Festival generates an additional $7.3 million in revenue. A similar result can be culled form the 2004 Film and Visual Media in Austin report which estimates that $9.3 million were generated by the film festival. Realizing these benefits, festivals such as the Rhode Island International Film Festival engage in coordinated festival tourism activities with other community based organizations. A narrower approach is chosen by the upscale Tarrytown House film festival providing to a relatively small audience an expensive package of pre-release films, luxury accommodations on a former estate, meeting with film directors and/or critics and other benefits. The end of the year Judith Christ Tarrytown Film Fest offers 3 nights of accommodations, meals, receptions, ten “groundbreaking” new movies and encounter with
Judith Crist and others for about $1.500 per person. In a similar vein the Bahamas International Film Festival in its third year at the upscale Atlantis hotel complex, offered a special package deal with sharply reduced rates for staying at the Atlantis during the early December festival. Eventually this film festival special may also include discounted air fares.

Public and private agencies are embracing film festival tourism as facilitating new sources of income both for local business and taxation. For example, in the US the Wisconsin Department of Tourism backed in Madison a new Sundance Cinema Center for independent and foreign films and supported the Beloit International Film Festival that debuted in January 2006. Among some other projects in the US was the Lake Michigan Independent film festival and convention supported through a marketing grant and the Eugene Film Festival in Oregan which received a tourism grant to attract out-of state guests. Offering more than the pilgrims’ rock, the Plymouth Independent film festival started in mid-July 2006 with private backers motivated by the goal of boosting tourism and culture in Massachusetts. Another New England festival, the Newport International Film Festival fest is a prime candidate for film festival tourism given its location, the interest shown by local travel agents and savvy festival management. On the international scale, the Cyprus Tourism Organization generated funding for the first Cyprus International Film Festival. According to news reports the sponsor Vakis Loizides believes that the late March festival combines the glamour of Cannes with the talent of Sundance and places “… Cyprus on the scene of international events. Cultural tourism is a priority for us”. The January Bangkok International Film Festival was well financed by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and had such a great appeal that for some observers the celebration of cinema receded into the background as did its relevance for the local film industry. In Scotland, the Aviemore Film Festival project is backed by several public sector bodies to ensure that Aviemore retains its cachet as a tourism resort.

Evidently, success of such ventures into film festival destination tourism cannot be taken for granted. They may succeed if certain conditions are met. For once the festival has to deliver quality programming since the individuals engaged in film festival tourism tend to come from affluent well-educated backgrounds with more refined cinematic tastes. Further the location of the festival must reinforce the attraction of the fest and the festival organizer need to develop a comprehensive travel package in private – public sector partnerships. Ironically this applied to the Havana Film Festival before the current US administration cracked down. U.S. travel agencies offered festival packages and tourists received discounted Havana film festival passes. But there are numerous locations with ready made appeal. Thus Newport, the Bahamas, Telluride, the Hampton as well as the Mexican San Miguel de Allende and Guanajato, are among those fit for effective cultural film tourism

In short, if certain conditions are met investment in film festival tourism by the public and/or private sector a film festival is likely to generate additional revenues apart from the soft public diplomacy impact they may have, that is bestowing prestige to the location (or country) hosting them.

Claus Mueller
New York Correspondent


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