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The Globe and Mail

Vancouver film fest proceeds despite money trouble

A scene from Age of Stupid, one of the films on offer at the Vancouver International Film Festival.

The Vancouver International Film Festival is heading into its 2009 program on uncertain financial footing, with corporate sponsors pulling out and promised government funding under review.

The festival had budgeted for a $70,000 infusion from the provincial gaming revenue fund, which is now in question after the Liberal government announced a review of all grants. Festival director Alan Franey told The Globe and Mail Wednesrday that he had to plow ahead, despite the potential shortfall, with an opening night of Oct. 1 looming. "We can't fire staff or cancel films at this stage," he said.

Franey added that he had anticipated that the current economic climate would make funding for this year's festival "a real challenge," and made a decision early on to raise ticket prices from $10 to $11. (VIFF's budget stands at around $2.4-million, with approximately $1-million of that coming from self-generated income, including ticket sales and membership fees.) Corporate sponsorship this year is currently totalling around $480,000, down from last year after the loss of both long-time major sponsor VanCity, and last year's corporate supporter Desjardins Financial Security. If the expected $70,000 in gaming grant money - usually paid out in the summer - does not arrive, the festival will, Franey said, be left with a deficit.

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"It's pretty significant," he said. "We don't have any fat, unlike some other festivals in the country."

VIFF is also still waiting to hear whether they will qualify for federal money from the Marquee Tourism Events Program, which awarded $3-million to the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year. "The lateness of the day on these funds makes it very difficult to plan. We can't start spending money on an entirely speculative construct," said Franey, who admitted he was "very concerned" about the next two years, not least because B.C. arts groups are anticipating cuts to government funding in Tuesday's provincial budget announcement.

Franey said VIFF's attendance was hit last year by the double whammy of the economic whirlwind and the fascination with the election taking place south of the border, but he expects to see audience numbers back up to their average of 150,000 over this year's festival run.

Taking its lead from world events, VIFF announced today details of two specially curated programs, focusing on global economics and environmental issues: Follow the Money and The Way of Nature. Programmed by Franey himself, these threads offer "lots of food for thought," he said. "Filmmakers have good antennae," he added. "Some of these films were started before the sky fell in, and they dig pretty deeply."

Though he insists that VIFF is "not allergic to glamour," Franey says he has no plans to turn the festival into an imitation of the Hollywood-driven TIFF. "We regard ourselves as a Canadian cultural event," he said. "With TIFF, you are talking about a different planet," he said. "It's like comparing the Canadian military with the U.S. machine."

Nevertheless, VIFF will host a number of world, North American and Canadian premieres, and cult U.S. screenwriter/director Charlie Kaufman is the keynote guest at the festival's industry sidebar, the Trade Forum. With better transit to both the flagship VanCity theatre and the Granville 7 provided by the newly opened Canada Line, Franey insisted that "it is not all doom and gloom. We are not in the poorhouse yet," he said. "And we are better situated than many of our peer organizations to weather this storm."

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