The new office of BendFilm, in Northwest Crossing, is brightly lit by natural sunshine, bouncing off tall, clean, white walls. Orit Schwartz, the artistic director, single employee and day-to-day coordinator of the October film festival, keeps the room sparse. There's no fancy furniture, no expensive art. Just two desks, a few chairs, a small conference table and movies - lots of movies. They fill boxes on the floor, the table, and shelves that line the wall.
Streamlined space, focus on the movies: it's a metaphor for BendFilm, which is attempting to move past a period of internal turmoil, financial difficulties and personality conflicts that have at times cast doubt on the festival's future, according to past board members, volunteers and others associated with BendFilm.
With a successful recent fundraiser under its belt, a board of directors closely monitoring spending and some leadership stability under Schwartz, those involved with BendFilm believe they've turned a corner in the festival's development.
"It's neat, now, to be at the point where we can really kind of look forward," said Ben Dittman, who became president of BendFilm's board of directors in January and brings a banker's background, which he believes can help keep the organization's finances on track.
But just what future BendFilm is looking forward to remains to be determined as the Bend economy continues to struggle and the organization tries to meet the lofty aspirations for what was once, according to Movie Maker magazine, thought to be one of the up and coming film festivals in the United States.
BendFilm will put on its third festival in a row this fall without an executive director to boost fundraising and chart a course for the organization. The once customary $10,000 prize for the "best in show" film, that some former volunteers say put BendFilm on the map, is likely off the table this year in favor of smaller pots divided up among several filmmakers. BendFilm's budget now sits at a a third of what it was five years ago.
"We have been affected greatly by the economy," said Schwartz, who formerly worked in production for television shows Roseanne, Third Rock from the Sun and NewsRadio and had her own film screened at BendFilm five years ago. "We had a lot of very successful contractors and builders that we were able to draw from and now we can't because they are suffering. We aren't getting the support we did a few years ago."
Several former sponsors, volunteers, and board members who wished to speak off the record said there is something else the group doesn't have enough of: vision. The notion that BendFilm, a festival that has drawn big name directors and generated national buzz, isn't dreaming big enough anymore, is a common concern. Without an executive director to set a big goal and raise the money to make it happen, the festival, it is thought, will have to lower expectations.
Schwartz takes these criticisms in stride and is unfazed by them. At our first meeting, she was adamant that this story should not be about individuals and old issues, but about the festival itself. Schwartz is modest and routinely deflects compliments. One former volunteer said Schwartz simply doesn't have an ego. Schwartz said one of her hopes for BendFilm is that it survives long after her involvement ends.
When speaking about BendFilm's vision and scope, she says she has a different perspective on the festival than what the original vision may have been,
"My personal belief is that it should be the community's festival," she said. "I hope it doesn't turn into this event that is completely industry. Sundance obviously comes to mind, but I don't think that's something to model. I don't see BendFilm becoming that."
She said she and the current board of directors are being realistic with the festival's money and current aspirations.
"It's one thing to have this big idea, but it's just an idea," she said. "If your fist isn't full of money, there's only so much you can do with it."
There are signs that BendFilm would like to grow. BendFilm has recently hired a grant writer to bring in cash, which Dittman said will help the organization diversify the festival's funding sources and make it less susceptible to the ups and downs of Bend's economy. And the group is likely to begin searching for a new executive director after the 2011 festival, Schwartz said.
This year's festival will mirror those aspiration and be a community-based event with a lean budget and a great deal of volunteer help. Schwartz is constantly praising BendFilm's financial supporters and the work of the dozens and dozens of volunteers who put in hundreds of hours of work, not just during the four-day festival, but year round to keep the organization running.
Even though the lavish parties of the past aren't possible anymore, Schwartz said attendees are still getting what they're looking for in a festival. Some 80 films will be screened in choice venues throughout Central Oregon when the festival hits town October 6. A second movie screen is being added in Sisters. There will still be parties, after-parties and after-after parties, said Schwartz.
Professionals in the film industry will still act as jurors. And locals can still have a word with up-and-coming filmmakers at places like O'Kanes, the back bar at McMenamins, she said.
"It all just comes down to the festival," said Schwartz, "Every year, doesn't matter which year, people are having a blast."
ONE OF BEND'S BLOCKBUSTERS
Brooks Resources CEO Mike Hollern told a crowd of about 120 people at a June fundraiser that it's important for BendFilm to succeed. And not just for the short-term economic boost that the festival provides during an otherwise slow time for restaurants and hotels, he said.
"I was making the argument that BendFilm is part of a strong economic development plan, based on the idea that we need to create an environment - music, dining, theater, art, film - that attracts the creative class," said Hollern, whose company is one of the original and chief sponsors of the festival.
This class of people will propel Central Oregon's economy, he said.
A survey conducted by Visit Bend last year demonstrated that BendFilm is inarguably a significant boost to Bend's economy, especially during a lull between summer and winter sports and tourism activity.
Visit Bend, which keeps tabs on the economic impact of tourism and event-related activities, surveyed several hundred festival-goers. When the amount spent by those surveyed is extrapolated to the entire population of attendees, the festival's net impact is big - somewhere around $1.2 million for Bend businesses.
To Rebecca Charlton, one of the founding volunteers of BendFilm, Hollern's speech about the importance of the festival was inspiring. Charlton said she was reminded of the days when BendFilm first rocketed onto the scene in 2004 under the leadership of founder Katie Merritt.
Charlton, who now runs Cowgirl Cash on Brooks Street in downtown Bend,said lots of money was spent in those first years. The parties were big and expensive with tents in Drake Park or along Minnesota Avenue downtown. The best chefs in the area were hired to cater the events and money was spent before BendFilm knew where the next check was coming from.
That audacity sold people on the festival, said Charlton. And thenext two years were just as heady and apparently successful as the first. Big names like Gus Van Sant and John Waters attended BendFilm. The buzz translated into a huge response from filmmakers who submitted more than 700 films during a single year around that time, said those involved with the organization at the time.
DRAMA IN THE BOARDROOM
Then Merritt and husband Peter Gramlich, a former Bend city councilor, moved to Portland and the board hired a new executive director, Erik Jambor,in spring of 2007. Jambor had founded the similarly sized Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in Birmingham, Ala., and ran that organization for eight years, according to media reports.
By the time Jambor arrived at BendFilm, the local economy was showing signs of cracking and after the 2007 festival, BendFilm found itself around $38,000 in the hole, according to documents submitted to the Internal Revenue Services.
Jambor left after just one festival to become the executive director of a film festival in Memphis. He did not return a phone call seeking comment. At this point, the organization's spending had drawn the deep concern of the non-profit's board, which wanted to rein in expenditures dramatically, said Charlton.
"It was more like the board of a bank, not the board of a creative festival," Charlton said.
This chasm between the vision of an executive director running the organization and the board of directors would become the heart of a conflict that persisted through the tenure of Jambor's successor, Sandy Henderson, who ran the 2008 festival.
At times, deep personality conflicts strained relations in the boardroom. Volunteers describe coming away from meetings involving BendFilm leaders with knots in their stomachs because of the tension.Henderson, who now works for The Source's sister company, Lay It Out Events, also spent just one festival as director. She declined to be interviewed for this story.
For the next two years, the board operated festivals without an executive director. Then, in January of this year, Bob Lane, who had been president of BendFilm's board, was hired as executive director. Lane, who is a retired real estate developer, left two months later. He could not be reached for comment.
City Councilor Scott Ramsay, who was submissions director of BendFilm for seven years and is a former BendFilm board member, said BendFilm's internal conflicts can be traced to the fact that the festival draws creative and expressive people who are passionate about their work. But, he said, the egos sometimes trumped other more pressing issues and the festival suffered because of it.
"BendFilm was hit hard by the economy," said Ramsay. "But the darkness of BendFilm has always resulted from personalities."
THE NEXT CHAPTER
The combination of economic downturn and internal struggles led sponsors, donors and volunteers to back away from the festival. The result was a plunging budget for an organization accustomed to big parties and healthy cash flow.
As a non-profit, BendFilm submits reports each year to the IRS describing its financial state. These reports, called 990s, reveal some of the financial decline.During its financial heyday in 2006, BendFilm reported revenue of $466,763. By 2009, when the organization was operating without an executive director and the air had all but totally leaked out of the Bend real estate bubble, BendFilm pulled in just $136,970 and spent almost every penny, according to its financial statements. That's a 70 percent decline in cash flow in just three years.
Some people involved with BendFilm thought the festival was going to fall apart.
"I thought it was doomed," said Charlton, who had stopped volunteering. "And then it just didn't die."
Schwartz was hired as artistic director a few months prior to the 2010 festival and the board of directors began to take a firm hand with finances under board president Lane. That year, party expenses were also scaled back.
The result was a roughly $60,000 net after the 2010 festival, said Dittman, whose professional area of expertise has been helping businesses develop accurate financial information.
"Before, it was really difficult just to get the numbers," said Dittman, of the lack of communication between the board and executive director."This is the beginning of being able to make good financial decisions."
This year, BendFilm expenses will again be closely monitored and organizers believe they are likely to end the year with a profit similar to the 2010 year.
Through everything, the festival has continued to enjoy a strong reputation among filmmakers and industry insiders, said Elliot Kotek, a film journalist and 2010 juror at BendFilm.
"There was an air of professionalism and the independent spirit was pervasive and enticing," said Kotek, who blogs about film at movingpicturesnetwork.com, of last year's festival.
At a recent independent film festival in Seattle, Kotek ate dinner with a number of former BendFilm jurors who are involved with film in the United States and internationally.
"Everyone that was [in Bend] wants to go again," said Kotek. "It's just a great little festival."
Despite the challenges they've inherited from BendFilm's past, Schwartz and Dittman say they are grateful to everyone whose leadership made the festival as respected as it is today.
"We wouldn't be where we are without them," said Dittman.
As the festival begins its next chapter, Schwartz hopes to dream again about what BendFilm could be - more staff, more filmmakers flown in, more events throughout the year, more serious film education and work with youth. But this time around, she said, they'll dream with their feet planted firmly on solid financial ground.
"It's not like we are trying to keep the festival small. In order to grow the festival, you have to take small steps, healthy steps," Schwartz said.