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And...Cut.: BendFilm's executive director resigns, board decides to restructure 

click to enlarge Image: Sandy Henderson resigned as BendFilm's Executive Director this week.
  • Image: Sandy Henderson resigned as BendFilm's Executive Director this week.
The latest news on the BendFilm Festival plays almost like a rerun of last year. The local film festival that's earning an increasingly strong buzz within the film industry is again saddled with a vacancy at the top of the non-profit organization. But this time around, there's more changes written into the BendFilm script, with slumping ticket sales and a board of directors saying they are looking at an organizational restructuring.

In fall of 2007, Erik Jambor stepped down as executive director after less than a year at the helm of BendFilm and within days the organization's board had named former film industry powerhouse Sandy Henderson to the vacated spot. But now, Henderson has announced her resignation from a position she once called her "dream job" just a little more than a week after the 2008 edition of BendFilm wrapped up.

Jim Bailey, the president of BendFilm's board of directors says that Sandy's resignation wasn't necessarily a surprise.

"The board and Ms. Henderson had been having differences of opinion as to the direction of BendFilm and the operational goals of the festival," Bailey said just hours after receiving notice of Henderson's resignation.

Henderson said that her resignation letter offered detailed reasons behind her decision to step down, but neither she nor Bailey would elaborate on the specifics of the letter. Henderson did, however, mention that she was disappointed that the board of directors did not help in the fundraising process - an area that Jambor cited as problematic upon his resignation in 2007.

Although Henderson did step down from the position this week on her own accord, Bailey said that her future with BendFilm, and that of the executive director position as a whole was quite uncertain. Then, shortly after Bailey's interview with the Source on Tuesday afternoon, BendFilm released a statement announcing a restructuring that includes the elimination of the executive director position, which, according to the press release, made up one-fifth of the festival's operating budget. The press release, however, does not mention that Henderson had resigned earlier in the day.

"We were going to have our next board meeting [Wednesday] night and the discussion would have come up there," Bailey said of the board's talks to restructure.

"I'm pretty certain that we'd knocked it around enough to know that the ED position didn't seem to be the right fit for BendFilm," he said.

Henderson was not aware that there was any talk of restructuring the organization going on.

On the surface, the 2008 BendFilm Festival went off swimmingly. There were more filmmakers in attendance than ever before, parties were well attended, and it seemed theatres were for the most part full.

"I would have to say that the festival was a crowning moment of my life. Two weeks before I thought I was throwing a festival that no one was coming to, the fact that we threw what has been called the best festival of all, I was really proud of that," Henderson says.

click to enlarge Sandy Henderson resigned as BendFilm's Executive Director this week.
  • Sandy Henderson resigned as BendFilm's Executive Director this week.
Sandy Henderson resigned as BendFilm's Executive Director this week.Last fall, Henderson hit the ground running, initiating the Indie Reels series in collaboration with the Tower Theatre before the ink was even dry on her executive director contract. From there, the loquacious native Australian didn't slow in her role as BendFilm's sole paid employee. She says that for much of her time with BendFilm she was working in the neighborhood of 80 hours per week. Some of those long hours were directed toward producing BendFilm's first-ever out of town screening, a showing of Breast Cancer Diaries in Portland, as well as corralling known industry names to appear at BendFilm - including Tony Safford, head of acquisitions for Fox Searchlight Pictures, who himself was reportedly impressed with BendFilm.

One of the areas in which BendFilm has worked to improve over the past few years is creating more of an industry-wide reputation in order to attract more filmmakers to the event. Jambor, who is now the executive director of the Indie Memphis Film Festival, says that the BendFilm chatter he heard reverberating through the filmmaker world was quite positive.

"From the filmmakers I talked to that were out there, it all sounds like it was really terrific," says Jambor, whose own festival took place the weekend after BendFilm and included some of the same films and included some of the same filmmakers.

While reviews were positive, Bailey says the same can't be said of the financial reality of BendFilm. When Bailey told the Source in an interview this summer that the festival was stable enough to not be banking on ticket sales to sustain the four-day event, he didn't mean that ticket sales weren't important to the festival's sustainability. Bailey said that ticket revenues were down 25 percent from last year. That is a tough number to swallow, especially when keeping in mind that BendFilm 2007's ticket sales were 25 percent behind in the 2006 totals.

Bailey was complimentary of Henderson's work with the festival and believes that the wide reaching responsibilities of the BendFilm executive director position created some built in problems. The job requires one to work in both fundraising and day-to-day business operations while also creating a festival that the organization hopes is a creative and professional product.

Henderson disagrees that the executive director position is innately flawed.

"I think the dynamic of having someone who has the skills for that position being put in a position where they can be micromanaged by a board that has no film experience is the flaw," Henderson said.

Katie Merrit, the festival's founder, admits that there are some built in problems with the position, while also admitting that these days she's in her own "raising-my-child bubble" and not formally involved with the inner workings of BendFilm. She says that the position requires someone with both "right brain and left brain" capabilities - a combination of skills that might be hard to find.

"Regardless of the economic climate it's a tough show to put on. But do I think it's possible for BendFilm to find a match [for the position] and grow with some cohesion? Absolutely," Merritt says.

Merritt also has a positive take on Henderson's work at BendFilm and is saddened to see her step down.

"Sandy just exudes passion for BendFilm. I think it's a shame that people couldn't get along. There was a primary conflict of personalities," Merritt says of what Bailey refers to as the "difference of opinions."

It's unclear what's next for Henderson - a woman who, judging from her accomplishments during one year with BendFilm, very well could have an even brighter future as she moves on. But she does have one plan for her newfound free time.

"I'm gonna sleep. I've been working 80 hours a week to make sure we had a memorable festival, and now I plan on sleeping," Henderson says.

Chances are there won't be as much slumber amongst the BendFilm board of directors as they begin what looks like a hefty restructuring process. Bailey says that this restructuring is primarily due to the festival's decrease in revenue and resources. With the current economy in mind, Bailey said they were prepared to incorporate a 15 percent decline in ticket revenue, but the 25 percent drop was a bit tougher to manage. According to Bailey, the festival also saw a decline in advertisers in its festival guide as well as money from submissions - which he speculates might have to do with independent filmmakers having trouble finding funding for their projects.

BendFilm has declared that there will, in fact, be a festival next year - quelling any doubt that the resignation and restructuring are any indication of the festival's demise - but there could be changes. Some extras to the festival, namely the parties, could be cut unless sponsorships and other donations can be found to cover the cost of those events.

There has been some speculation amongst those close to the festival that BendFilm could be placed under the direction of the Tower Theatre Foundation (which also operates as a nonprofit organization and has already worked with BendFilm for the Indie Reels series) but Bailey says that the board has never discussed this possibility.

There is likely to be more speculation as the days and weeks go by. Some may rest in knowing that there will be a BendFilm next year - but others might wonder if it will be the BendFilm they've come to know.

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