Williamstown Film Festival bows out of local arts arena

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WILLIAMSTOWN — The Williamstown Film Festival is ending its run.

Earlier this month, the board of directors voted to terminate the festival, which celebrated its 17th year in 2015.

Several factors contributed to the decision, said board President Joe Finnegan during an interview with the Eagle.

Fundraising and leadership change

"When you have a festival like this, the budget is usually a 50-50 or 60-40, or 40-60, something close, between ticket sales and fundraising," Finnegan said.

"Our highest budget was about $165,000, last year's budget was $110,000. When Steve Lawson was the executive director, he knew how to raise money. He had all these connections, connections to Williams College, connections to Williamstown, connections to New York City and the Manhattan Theater Club. He had about 10 big donors and a loyal group from Williams. There were people who loved him," said Finnegan.

The result of Lawson's revenue-raising skills meant the budget was composed of about 75 to 80 percent fundraising monies and about 20 to 25 percent ticket sales, Finnegan said.

"So because of this fundraising ability, the festival did either break even or come out a little in the black or a little in the red," he said.

Lawson served as the festival's executive director for 15 years and when he stepped down, the festival changed a bit under newly appointed Managing Director Sandra Thomas, former executive director of Images Theater. Thomas and Artistic Director Paul Sturtz brought new energy and a nonfiction focus to the event. The festival had a name change to Wind Up Fest and the roster included podcasts and late night events.

"Ticket sales were a success; it was a performance success, but some things changed. People left positions that they were in and new people didn't have the same connections," he said. "Some donors stopped donating."

Images Cinema

Meanwhile, Images Cinema is approaching its 100th anniversary and strengthening its offerings, Finnegan said.

"It's gotten stronger and has a much more indie feel. They have become audience engaged and it has a festival feel to it."

To continue the WFF would mean a geared-up effort to raise funds, a challenge in times when arts budgets are tight and most museums and festivals are fighting for the same dollars.

"We would have to raise more money. We'd have to increase our budget significantly, and we're all sort of fighting for the same resources," he said.

Over the years, the independent film distribution network has changed as well, he said.

"It's become much more corporate. It is getting more difficult to bring films to small festivals. We are opting for a graceful exit and celebrating Images' 100 years."

In its heyday, the festival brought famed film directors and actors to its celebration. In 1999, John Frankenheimer, who directed films including "The Manchurian Candidate" debuted the festival. Other actors coming to town for the event included Patricia Clarkson and Peter Dinklage.

Lawson said that he felt mixed emotions about the news. He was at the board meeting as an invited guest when the vote to end the festival was taken and he was invited to speak to the board members.

"Of course, I felt a pang after the vote and it gave me a pang when I stepped down a year ago," Lawson said during an interview with the Eagle.

He recalled his years guiding the festival and his ability to generate donations to the festival.

"There were people on the advisory board, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward," he said. "And most of them did something for the festival."

He agreed that Images is becoming a very bright star on the artistic horizon.

"They are doing some very Williamstown Film Festival-like things," Lawson said. "They are filling a void."


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