A mysterious press release came out of the state Department of Business and Economic Development Dec. 11 that's left some members of Baltimore's film community scratching their heads in wonder. The release, sent out by the department which houses the Maryland Film Office--the agency charged with attracting filmmakers to the state--proclaims "Governor O'Malley Announces Support for New, Existing Film Festivals."
The news seemed to come out of nowhere. Jed Dietz, founder of the Maryland Film Festival, which celebrated its 10th year this past May, was surprised when reached for comment. "I never heard of it," he says of the release. "None of us [at the festival] knew about it."
Currently, the state is slashing budgets like a B actor in a '70s horror film, from the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to Center Stage to the Baltimore Opera Company, which Baltimore Sun music critic Tim Smith first reported filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Dec. 8 and canceled the rest of its season, so the news that support for film festivals is on its way is good, but dubious for a few reasons.
According to the press release, the Film Festival Grant Program "in an effort to fuel the creation of new film festivals in [the state] and support existing [ones] will award matching grants ranging from $1,000 to $5,000 to qualified applicants." Criteria for the grants include "quality, quantity and diversity of programming, quality and quantity of filmmakers attending, and anticipated number of attendees," among other concerns.
In a state that hosts not only Baltimore's Maryland Film Festival and Silver Spring's SilverDocs, but also the Annapolis Film Festival, the Chesapeake Film Festival, the Johns Hopkins Film Festival, Microcinefest, and the Creative Alliance's CamSlam, you have to wonder exactly who needs the state "to fuel the creation of new film festivals" now? And why would it when it could simply better fund the existing festivals? The state's existing festivals know what they're doing because they've been putting on festivals for years.
More importantly, funding increments of $1,000 to $5,000 don't go very far in the film-festival world, where filmmakers often have to be flown in and put up, and screening rooms, printing programs, print shipping, and advertising quickly eat up a budget. It's doubtful that small grants like these could help any launch any festival, but could aid those already established and know what they're doing.
On the heels of a National Governor's Association report entitled "Promoting Film and Media to Enhance State Economic Development," which found "film festivals as a significant factor for increasing tourism," the Gov's new plan may prove too little too late. According to local film insiders, who've noticed all too well the recent drop-off in film productions coming to town, other states have effectively pushed Maryland out of the running for potential filming locations. States such as Michigan and New Mexico have incentive programs with multi-million dollar backing, while Maryland's paltry refundable tax credits and waivers tap out at $4 million.
Determining how this new plan changes anything from previous Maryland practices remains fuzzy. This reporter can't help but have the feeling that some sort of political back scratching is taking place with this less-is-more style press release. On the other hand, the news could always be worse.