Trouble at the Newport Film Festival

High Drama
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 23, 2009

For more than a decade, the Newport International Film Festival has been a highlight on the state's cultural calendar.

Four years ago, festivalgoers got a peek at Me and You and Everyone You Know. In 2008 it was Man on Wire, with a visit from Philippe Petit, the highwire act who danced between the Twin Towers 35 years ago and landed at the center of the documentary.

And in June, the festival took a promising turn when it partnered with the Museum of Modern Art's film preservation program.

But now, it seems, Newport's little gem is losing its luster.

Three months after this year's iteration, much of the staff remains unpaid. The festival's phone line has been disconnected. And the board is unsure if the event will survive.

"As a board, we are actively trying to find solutions," said Mitchell Massey, the festival treasurer. "I hope we're successful. But in this environment, there are no guarantees."

Massey declined to attach a number to the festival's debt. But he said the organization needs to raise some $150,000 if the event is to continue into next year.

Staffers have only praise for executive director Jennifer Maizel, who left the prestigious Sarasota Film Festival last year to take over the Rhode Island organization and declined to comment for this article. And they say Massey has responded to some of their queries.

But they say the board, on the whole, has been unresponsive to requests for payment and questions about the fiscal health of the festival. "They were nice and good to work with during the festival and we were abandoned afterward," said Scott Norwood, who does projection work for the festival and says he is owed over $3000. "The organization . . . seems to be falling apart."

Film festivals are not money-makers, as a rule. And a certain amount of financial difficulty is de rigeur in Newport. Last year, an anonymous donor helped to keep the festival afloat with a large gift. And the NIFF staff has grown accustomed to a few weeks delay in payment.

But this year's trouble is worse than usual, by all accounts. Massey said the poor economic climate made it more difficult to get corporate sponsorships and depressed ticket sales. Steady rain during the festival did not help matters.

And Alan Weiss, a former chairman of the board who left after the June festival, said his successor Annette Leiderman Raisky quit the job just weeks after taking it, leaving the organization with a leadership vacuum.

"I think this [chairwoman] resigning after seeking the job was a real kick in the head," said Weiss, who has donated $5000 to the festival since leaving the top post.

Raisky did not return a phone call or e-mail messages requesting comment.

Massey said the festival is in the process of identifying new donors. And the board, which has traditionally staged a fall auction to raise money, hopes to do the same this year. "Our desire is to be able to pay people," said Massey. "We want to do the right thing."

Board members are expected to donate to the cause themselves. Weiss said he required each member to contribute $5000 last year. And Massey said most have put up some money this year. But panel members, many of them affected by the financial downturn, are not in a position to rescue the festival on their own, he said.

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