Roll 'Em

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2006

After five hours of working the crowd, Jody Kielbasa finally relaxes and lets his colorful silk tie has slithered free from its once-tight knot.

Kielbasa, executive director of the Sarasota Film Festival, has just presided over a glittery Longboat Key Club party introducing the lineup of films and stars expected to appear at the eighth annual festival. With supporters gone, off to dream of desperate housewives in Sarasota (actress Felicity Huffman was among the invitees), Kielbasa is still out on the lawn of the Harborside Marina, informally meeting with the festival's PR agency and members of his staff. A local media company that is a sponsor of this year's festival will not be running the launch story as expected, and Kielbasa is incensed. It is too late to make a call, but Kielbasa wants a discussion first thing in the morning.

Such is the life of 48-year-old Kielbasa, who has spent the past eight years gunning his engine on all cylinders with only one goal in sight: to make the Sarasota Film Festival one of the preeminent film festivals in the Western Hemisphere. "From the day I started here, I told the board of directors that I wanted to paint on a larger canvas-larger locally, nationally and internationally," he says. "And to date, we've been successful on all of these levels."

In 2005 the film festival had its coming-out party as a big player. Total tickets sold surpassed 40,000, making it one of the largest in the southeast United States. In May 2005 the organization chartered a 438-foot luxury yacht, the Seabourn Legend, and sailed with 100 of Sarasota's most well-heeled supporters to the Cannes Film Festival on the French Riviera. While there, they hosted three nights of parties and erected a Sarasota Film Festival banner on the building immediately across the street from the world-famous red carpet, leaving an impressionable mark on everyone who glanced upwards. Then, Screen International, a leading film industry trade magazine, named it one of the top 20 film festivals in the country. (Close to 800 film festivals take place in the United States annually, with Sarasota actually airing four: UNIFEM, the Jewish Film Festival, Sarasota Film Society's Cine-World and the Sarasota Film Festival.) "Since they published," Kielbasa notes, "one of the festivals has gone belly up, so we're at least number 19 now!"

The growth and success of the Sarasota Film Festival has been a turnaround for some of its organizers-and the community-after the French Film Festival shut down in 1996, following a sometimes maligned eight-year run in Sarasota. "They never entirely captured the imagination of the local population," recalls Kielbasa, "and as it was a showcase for just French films, they could only draw from a very limited audience."

Dr. John Welch, one of the original founders of the French Film Festival, refused to give up on the idea that Sarasota could support a vibrant, annual celebration of film. With this in mind, he began an early retirement with a pilgrimage across the country to audit as many film fests as he could and formulate a potential new model of success for Sarasota.

Gathering together a culturally astute group of French Film Festival holdouts as well as new board members, Welch and his associates formed the nonprofit Sarasota Film Festival Inc. in 1998 and began their search for an executive director. That July, they hired Kielbasa, an FSU/Asolo Conservatory graduate who had recently returned to southwest Florida after spending nine years acting and producing plays in Los Angeles. Upon his hiring, Kielbasa was given a bank account with $1,000 and told that he needed to put together the first festival in six months.

"Because of the history of the French Film Festival in the community, we were conscientious that whatever we did, it had to be a 180-degree turn in the opposite direction," Kielbasa says. "At the core of the new festival, then, there had to be American films. America continues to dominate film and screen as an art form. When I went on my honeymoon to Paris, 12 out of the 14 films at the Cineplex on the Champs-Elysées were American made."

Kielbasa's first act was to board a flight to L.A., on his own dime, to visit old friends and acquaintances. A friend with Showtime came through and offered world-premiere showings of two Showtime films, promising to send the stars to Sarasota as well. And they did show up: Jon Favreau and Jonathan Silverman, with their respective movies, Marciano and Freak City. In January 1999, the film festival's debut, the three-day event included eight movies and a ritzy gala that raised enough seed money to propel the organization forward for a five-day event the following year. The 2000 festival presented 64 films and was hugely successful, bringing in Hollywood supernovas Jon Voight and Brooke Shields.

Kielbasa credits the support of the business community for catapulting the film festival to its current success. This year, the 10-day event secured more than 100 corporate sponsorships. Together, the companies gave more than $1 million in cash and $1.5 million in in-kind contributions, including entire sections of luxury resorts, banquets and limousine services, to put on the show.

Mary Kay Ryan, director of sales and marketing at the Longboat Key Club and Resort, says the club recently signed a three-year contract to be the festival's official resort. It's a commitment that requires well over six figures of in-kind contributions, including the black-tie, 800-plus person, four-course tribute dinner. Kay does not hesitate to say that the expense is worth it.

"The exposure we're able to generate through the festival is invaluable. We see three messages that we're getting out to the Sarasota community that otherwise we'd never able to get out," she says: The festival brings visibility to the Longboat Key Club's location and facilities, as well as showcasing membership opportunities at its golf and tennis clubs and laying the groundwork for plenty of future business.

Tracy Kelley, the festival's director of marketing and development, recently joined the organization after serving as the Sarasota Ballet's director of development for two years. "From a fund-raising standpoint, this is a much easier sell than the ballet was," she explains. "The film festival is an appealing product for nearly everyone in the community. With close to 200 films being shown that range along the spectrum from mainstream movies to extreme fringe, a marketer can target in on their particular demographic for sponsorship. In addition, there are 11 high-profile events that offer great opportunities for valuable brand exposure."

Kielbasa finds corporate sponsorships to be of great value for patrons. "We're now getting close to 400 pages of press a year in local, regional, national and international print media," he says. "And this is good press, not the salacious stuff on Court TV. (This year, the festival got coverage in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and on Entertainment Tonight.) "What this event is able to do for downtown Sarasota-tourism, housing exposure, among other things-is extremely powerful."

"Beyond the brand exposure," he adds, "all corporate sponsors are allocated a number of passes for the festival. These are great events for a company's clients. They are easy to do, the stars are there and the reinforcement of the brand all combine to make a powerful impact." The message is clearly getting across, as local heavy-hitters such as Sarasota Mercedes-Benz, the Longboat Key Club and Resort and Bank of America are repeat buyers at levels surpassing six figures. Indeed, one might say that the festival is more akin to a NASCAR event than a charity, as 95 percent of the organization's revenue is generated by corporate sponsorship.

Doug DiVirgilio, Sarasota-Manatee president of Bank of America, appreciates the fact that the festival seems to draw from all demographics. "This is one of the only events that I can say where the city meets and comes together from all walks of life. That's rare, and because of it, everyone wants to be a part of this. Diversity is obviously a key value for us, and this event matches the diversity of our clients and our associates."

Neil McCurry, president of People's Community Bank and current president of the festival, has seen his company grow alongside the festival-literally. "Our first office was right next to the Hollywood 20, so we watched the festival grow outside of our front window," he says. McCurry, who started his bank in 1998, recalls the days when there was no budget for advertising. "It was an ideal situation. We wanted to get free photography of stars in front of our bank. I stationed a few of our employees with cameras outside when we thought that Brooke Shields would be walking by, but fortunately for our legal health, it didn't work out. Jody wanted me to quit stalking his actors and he got me involved that year. I've been with the festival ever since."

This year's festival was held March 31 through April 9, a change from all previous years' late-January schedules. Perhaps learning from the organizers of the Sundance Film Festival, who were never on the map until they changed the dates of their Utah festival from summer to the Hollywood-preferred skiable January; the Sarasota organizers found that timing is everything. Contemplating the convergence of the Super Bowl, the Golden Globe Awards, Oscars and FCATs (yes, even the FCATs), organizers decided the festival would be better off in the middle of spring, when couch potatoes, Hollywood stars and students alike could all come out and enjoy the festivities.

With more than 165 films shown, along with the presence of stars such as Chevy Chase and William H. Macy (Huffman's real-life husband) this year, Sarasota continues to grow its cache. Now debt-free, the festival would like to start capturing more of its thousands of attendees as an annual revenue source through memberships, non-festival events during the year and targeted philanthropic donor requests.

Michelle Moretta, the festival's Manhattan-based publicist, who also works for the Hamptons International Film Festival and the Newport Film Festival, finds that the most successful festivals are those located in "resort-like, tony atmospheres."

One of founder John Welch's proudest Sarasota Film Festival moments occurred one evening at sunset, as he was looking out of a Ritz-Carlton penthouse onto Sarasota Bay and beyond to the Gulf of Mexico with British actor Michael York (Taming of the Shrew, Cabaret, all three Austin Powers movies). York sighed and confided, "This is just as beautiful as Cannes."

Perhaps Sarasota is on its way.


Film festivals such as Sundance, Tribeca and Toronto are famous for their ability to attract major stars and the "swag bags" they give them. With event sponsors drooling to have their cell phone or purse carried by Salma Hayek, the bags will literally carry thousands of dollars worth of merchandise inside.

"We haven't gotten to that level yet," concedes Kielbasa, who is leery of depending on Hollywood stars to give the Sarasota Film Festival their seal of approval. "If you build a festival around the constant arrival of stars, you will live and die by the same sword. Two years ago we did not have an honoree lined up for our tribute dinner until 72 hours prior to the event. While it was front-page news locally, I didn't care. We had sold out the 800 tickets for the evening, the festival was solid, and I knew we would pull it off."

Kielbasa and his programming director, Tom Hall, are sure to tell everyone that Sarasota's festival is about film, not stars, and that one of their principal goals is to grow film culture. As such, Hall is particularly keen on inviting and bringing as many of the filmmakers who entered films to Sarasota each year, despite the fact that they might not have such star power. In the meantime, as the festival grows and more filmmakers attend, Hall has found that each year it has become progressively easier to bring top performers to town.


Anand Pallegar, a U.K. transplant by way of Detroit and owner of At Large, a Sarasota Internet and e-commerce-development agency, was also tapped by Kielbasa to donate some digital expertise in-kind. The result was a 2006 festival Web site that has been hailed as one of the more innovative sites for any festival in North America. Users could build and purchase their complete festival schedule online, integrate it into their Outlook account or sync with a PDA. Movie industry personnel, international guests who bought online prior to their arrival and locals who avoided lines at the box office were thrilled.

Pallegar envisions a long-term relationship with the festival, helping to develop relationships with guests in future years, giving them recommendations for other films they might like, based on films they've seen at past festivals.

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