The Regional Ambitions and Financial Realities of the Cinetopia Film Festival

Although Detroit and Ann Arbor are separated by a drive of just 45 minutes, surprisingly few efforts of any sort bridge the two cities, let alone major public events. But last year the nascent Cinetopia International Film Festival broke from that norm in a major way, building upon its inaugural year in Ann Arbor to offer a long weekend of film screenings in both cities. 

"Ann Arbor's not Detroit, but I always felt like Ann Arbor was as linked to Detroit as any of the surrounding suburbs," says Cinetopia co-director and Michigan Theater executive director Russ Collins. "Sometimes I think people outside of Ann Arbor think of Ann Arbor more like Traverse City than they think of it like Royal Oak or Birmingham. And actually I think, just in terms of proximity and a lot of dynamics, we're pretty similar."

Thirty films screened at Ann Arbor's Michigan Theater,  State Theater and Angell Hall for last year's festival, while nine screened at the Detroit Film Theatre. For the festival's third outing on June 4-8, organizers are upping the ante in Detroit by adding another 40 screenings at four new venues: the College for Creative Studies, the Charles H. Wright Museum, Cinema Detroit and the Michigan Science Center. Collins says Detroit and Ann Arbor serve as separate urban and suburban campuses for Cinetopia, an idea common to many larger film festivals.

"At Sundance, Park City is where you think of the Sundance Film Festival taking place," he says. "But it essentially takes place in Salt Lake City too. They have multiple venues in Salt Lake City, and you can pretty much see all of the Sundance Film Festival in Salt Lake City."

Detroit Film Theatre director and Cinetopia programming team member Elliot Wilhelm agrees. His comparison of choice is the Telluride Film Festival, where some screenings require a gondola trip up a mountain to reach a satellite screening venue.

"It's another form of expansion," Wilhelm says. "It's a vertical expansion, but it's serving different audiences as well. As festivals grow, this happens."

A tale of two cities

However, that doesn't necessarily translate to audience interchange between the two cities during Cinetopia. Collins says there were "not a lot" of Ann Arbor festivalgoers who made the trip to Detroit, or vice versa, last year. This year's festival will give them fewer reasons to, as both cities will be playing essentially the same program of films.

"It may be an opportunity for some people from Detroit to take a trip to Ann Arbor and spend a day here watching films," Wilhelm says. "If so, that's terrific. But it's not something you have to do."

Sultan Sharrief, the festival's Detroit coordinator, says there are distinct communication challenges in selling the festival to each city.  He says many Detroiters don't have a clear understanding of how a film festival works.

"I was talking to some folks yesterday and they thought you just sat around and watched movies," Sharrief says. "They're like, ‘So it's like a musical festival? It's like a jazz fest?' And I'm like, ‘Yeah. You can just come and just hang out and link up with people.'"

On the other hand, Sharrief says some Ann Arborites he's spoken with have an outdated concept of Detroit as it was 20 years ago, despite the fact that the city is "different every day." 

"Whatever preconceived notions they have that have been frozen in time, they haven't found a safe or accessible way to get out of that mode," he says. "I think Cinetopia would be a great way to do that."

Cinetopia programmer Brian Hunter says that idea of getting out of your comfort zone is an essential part of the enterprise overall.

"I think that's the conceit of a film festival," Hunter says. "You're going to take chances on things and you're probably going to be surprised by what you like. I think that's the fascinating thing for Ann Arborites; I think it's a fascinating thing for Detroiters. It's finding something new that would never come across their plate."

Finding financial footing

The festival's continued growth in both communities will depend not just on audiences taking a chance on a movie ticket (or tickets), but on sponsorship dollars. The majority share of most film festivals' budgets comes from sponsors, rather than ticket sales, and Cinetopia is no exception. Collins says a little over 50 percent of this year's $300,000 budget came from sponsors including Toyota, AT&T and the MGM Grand Detroit. The key contribution for 2014 came in the form of a $50,000 Knight Foundation grant. Collins says the grant, and the additional sponsors it helped bring in, were "absolutely necessary" to the festival's growth this year.

"If you're going from nine screenings in Detroit to 50 screenings in Detroit, it means you need five times as much sponsorship of that," he says. "It's not just five times as much attendance."

Last year's festival drew an attendance of 10,000, with 8,000 attending Ann Arbor screenings and 2,000 attending in Detroit. Organizers are aiming for attendance of 15,000-20,000 this year, with Ann Arbor attendance projected to remain about the same. Collins says it's hard to say how the festival's ratio of "earned" to "contributed" income will change in the years to come, but both sides will depend on developing a unique and well-recognized event. He compares Cinetopia to the Cleveland International Film Festival, which will mark its 40th year in 2015. 

"They have a management that's been there for the last 10 or 12 years that have just built it and built it and built it and built it, and there's just that excitement," Collins says. "That's what we hope happens."

The Cleveland fest attracted 93,000 attendees this year. Although Cinetopia 2014 won't crack even one-quarter of that number, the young festival is growing extremely quickly and organizers have lofty long-term goals.

"We're in it for the long haul," Collins says. "We know that these festivals, if they really catch on, they're up in the 60, 70, 80 or 90,000 [attendance range]. We would like to get there, and frankly expect to get there, but we also know that there aren't magic wands. You really have to build things stepwise."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.

All photos by Doug Coombe

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