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New England News

Williamstown Film Festival Calls It Quits

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After 17 seasons, the final credits are rolling for the Williamstown Film Festival. The nonprofit’s board of directors recently voted to close the Festival because of financial pressures, time constraints and the emergence of the affiliated Images Cinema as an event programmer.“To go to the next level and survive in this environment we’d have to staff differently, we’d have to fundraise differently and we’d have to have a realistic goal of selling a lot more tickets,” said board president Joe Finnegan. “That’s what caused the current board to say why don’t we close this chapter and see where we go next.”

Launched in 1999, the Festival has showcased independent films and hosted actors like Paul Newman, Patricia Clarkson and Alec Baldwin. Having been involved in its creation, Steve Lawson, a veteran of the television, film and theater worlds, came on as executive director in March 2000.

“I was on Cloud 9 for about two seconds and then the board in effect said ‘Now go raise your own salary,’” Lawson recalled. “Because there was none. That’s sort of how it began.”

Lawson ensured the annual event was more than just going to the movies. If a member of the film’s cast or production crew couldn’t attend to provide insight about the work, the Festival wouldn’t show it.

“And you could wind up sitting next to Alec Baldwin, Brian Dennehy and Brad Silberling and hear them talk as you’re walking down the sidewalk about how he wound up writing or being in that film.”

Lawson led both the artistic and fundraising aspects of the Festival. Finnegan and Lawson agree the financial model was unusual, with about 75 percent of income coming from contributions instead of a 50-50 split between ticket sales and donations.

“A very good percentage of those who did give, especially who did give substantially, were drawn from my contacts in the larger world of TV, film and theater,” said Lawson.

Finnegan says significant contributions allowed the Festival to keep ticket prices low — drawing about 2,500 people over four days — and operate on an average budget of about $150,000 over the 17 seasons.

“Which gave us that feeling of going to a neighborhood barbeque as opposed to going to a very big, showy festival where you needed a lot of money to get access to the stars or you had to buy a very expensive pass,” explained Finnegan.

In 2015, Lawson retired as executive director. Sandra Thomas, who ran Williamstown’s Images Cinema, and Paul Sturtz of the True/False Film Festival in Missouri stepped in run the ship. The Festival was reprogrammed to focus on documentaries and live performance, renaming itself the Wind-Up Fest. Finnegan says it was a programmatic success and ticket sales were up 100 percent, but major contributors had dropped off with Lawson’s departure and for other reasons. Fully aware of the impact his departure has had, Lawson says there is some regret and sadness, but believes the Festival has helped launch filmmakers’ careers and benefited the area.

“The former owner of the Williams Inn said the film festival was the best thing to happen in the fall in years to the area,” Lawson. “It became a destination festival that people made plans for it. Not just around here, but we had people coming in from Boston, New York and New Jersey.”

As Images Cinema celebrates its 100th year, Finnegan says the theater has started offering programming similar to the Festival’s. He adds that a number of economic development projects in northwestern Berkshire County could reinvigorate the film festival.

“There could be a desire to reignite the flame in a year or two and I’d be happy to be a part of that,” said Finnegan.                                                                                                     

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