In September 2006, some local cineastes were terrified to learn that Michael Cain was shuttering his mom-and-pop Deep Ellum Film Festival and spending a little less than $1 million to license the Los Angeles-based American Film Institute's name and consultants. Sell out, they whispered, especially when it was announced that Target was ponying up around $1 million for above-the-title sponsorship. But that was before the AFI Dallas International Film Festival became a hot ticket for filmmakers and film fans alike -- before bold-faced names strode red-carpet premieres, and before selling out turned into sold-out screenings over the last three smartly scheduled springs.
But the AFI Dallas International Film Festival is no more. As of today, that name is dead. Gone forever.
It will be replaced by the Dallas International Film Festival -- which, Cain tells Unfair Park today, is precisely what he'd hoped would happen back in September 2006, when he signed a three-year licensing and consulting deal with AFI that was allowed to expire without a renewal. Says Cain, the new festival will operate under the auspices of the Dallas Film Society.
"The board, the sponsors, the film fanatics, they don't care what we're called, so long as we're good," Cain says. "The team will remain untouched, and there may even be additions down the road. It's control of our own brand, the ability to develop what we want to do and what we want to be in the future at an amazing time to be doing it, given what's going on with things like the Dallas Center for the Performing Arts. We can take advantage of those things without checking in, which is exciting, and it opens up sponsorship opportunities as well."
For the past three years, the Dallas Film Society has been listed as one of the sponsors as AFI Dallas, but Cain says the goal all along was to develop the film society as a separate entity that would eventually create year-round programming as well as have control of the festival. Says Cain, "We want to do more than an 11-day event" in the spring, referring to the current Friday Night Film Series at the Nasher Sculpture Center and the James Bond film series at the Museum of Nature & Science as the examples of programming the DFS will sponsor.
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Practically speaking, severing its relationship with AFI will allow the DFS to save money -- no more million-dollar contracts to pay out. But Cain insists the economy -- which forced the fest to trim an 11-day schedule to eight this year, and found NorthPark Center replacing Target as the title sponsor -- has nothing to do with ending the relationship.
"At the end of the day, we were in some ways so successful with the collaboration it allowed us the opportunity to brand ourseclves as Dallas," he says. "We respond to the economy when it's up and when it's down, but most people who came to the festival this year have said it was our biggest and best one, even though we brought it in for less. And we have money in the bank, because who knows what next year will look like. Our box office went up this year, our attendance went up, our sold-out screenings went up."
But now, the hard part -- lining up sponsors and putting together next year's fest, all while Cain takes some time off this summer to work on his Stark Club projects. He does say that the AFI and Dallas Film Society do share some board members, which means there won't be a total severing of the umbilical cord: "There will always be a dialogue going back and forth," he says. But just like the good ol' days of the Deep Ellum Film Festival and the Boyd Hotel, Cain and his folks are on their own again.
"This allows us to reinvest in Dallas," he says. "Part of the sustainability model for the festival was to grow more organically. Each year we brought fewer and fewer people from out of state to work the festival, and we programmed 95 percent of the festival on our own. AFI gave us an amazing base of knowledge to lift ourselves up, [but] we're confident we can continue on our own."