February through April are particularly busy months in downtown Charleston, packed with festivals that draw in tourists and give locals an excuse to let their hair down. The Southeastern Wildlife Expo (SEWE) kicks off proceedings in February, then hardly a weekend goes by without a special event. Five days after SEWE comes the Wine + Food Festival; two days after that, Fashion Week comes to town, followed by the Cooper River Bridge Run.
Somehow, these events manage not to overlap or compete with each other. But what would happen if two festivals with the same customer base used similar names and happened within a month of each other?
That's the case with the Charleston Film Festival, newly created by Terrace Theater owner Mike Furlinger, and the Charleston International Film Festival, a two-year-old event developed by Summer Spooner and Brian Peacher. Furlinger's version will run March 11-14, 2010, closely followed by the CIFF on April 8-11.
The close scheduling is no accident. Furlinger appreciated the increased business that CIFF brought to the Terrace in 2008 and '09. But he wanted more control over the films shown, so he's doing his own thing next year. Meanwhile, Spooner and Peacher say they'd always hoped to move their festival to the American Theater (the space was not available to them in '08). The result: two film festivals in different venues in 2010.
Last month, the Terrace announced the Charleston Film Festival and named local filmmaker Joel Schooling as the director. "The Terrace always wanted a film festival," Furlinger says. "We have more to offer the local community by doing it ourselves.
"We're here all year round. We don't just fly in for two days," says Furlinger, referring to Spooner and Peacher's West Coast location.
However, Peacher was raised and educated in the Lowcountry; more recently he has worked with Spooner on the Beverly Hills Film Festival in California.
This stood them in good stead when they planned the first CIFF. The pair presented a hearty balance of medium-budget movies in two- to three-hour blocks, followed by simple and elegant receptions and parties. The fest was a modest, indisputable success, creating a particular buzz among local filmmakers. The second year was an improvement on the first, with more discussion panels and a greater variety of films.
"Attendance and sponsorship was up," says Spooner. "We've found a way to make things go well, and we'll continue to do what we have done over the past two years."
Spooner and Peacher have been careful not to overreach themselves. "A film festival can get momentum and grow too fast," Spooner says. "We've been insistent on one venue or two at the most."
When Furlinger opened the Hippodrome, CIFF directors visited the space but decided it was too big. "We're focusing on smaller, more intimate venues," says Peacher. "It's not the right fit now. Maybe it will work for us in the future."
Furlinger will hold his event in the Hippodrome and his original James Island location, both of which have a ready-made audience. The Terrace has a regular clientele, and Furlinger claims that between 80-90 percent of CIFF attendees were regular customers. "They didn't come because of who ran it; they came because it was at the Terrace," Furlinger says. "The organizers might have found good films, but I could easily do that myself."
Furlinger states that he and his partner judged the movies, and he ran the day-to-day festival. He also donated the space and used concession sales to help cover costs. So from a business standpoint, it made sense for him to create his own event.
The timing of his festival seems to make less sense. Although the Terrace version preempts CIFF, it will still have to share a local pool of sponsors and customers. "In April or May we'd be competing with too many things, and after the Academy Awards [slated for March 7], you have a drop-off in the quality of films. So March is a logical time to have a festival," Furlinger explains.
However, Spooner would have preferred if Furlinger had scheduled his fest for the fall and named it the Terrace Film Fest.
The movie theater owner has an answer for this too. "We did consider a couple of other names," he says. "Everybody uses Charleston Film Festival — they just add French, gay, or another word. It didn't seem illogical because we live here."
As Furlinger points out, there's nothing wrong with healthy competition — it's the American way. "It's part of doing business. If our festival is better, we'll make it. If not, it won't be here for a second year. The customer decides."