History of Friends of the Festival, Inc

The Tampa Bay International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival (TIGLFF) was founded in 1990 as a three day extension of Tampa’s gay pride celebrations by representatives of three LGBTQ+ organizations: The Tampa Bay Business Guild (TBBG), the Bay Area Human Rights Coalition, and the Tampa Bay Gay Men’s Chorus.  Over the course of its first decade the film festival was a fundraising event for a number of local non-profit groups, eventually falling under the umbrella of Tampa Bay Arts.

Dorothy Abbott programmed most of the festivals through the 1990s. Dorothy built industry relationships that put TIGLFF on the national map.  She is also the person who put the word “international” in our name.

At every moment in the film festival’s history, a number of people have stepped up and done whatever needed to be done.  Some gave more time and money than they could afford.  They did it because they loved this festival, and they wanted to see it survive and prosper.  This is true no matter which era or which producing organization we’re talking about.

Founders who helped lead, organize and plan the film festival in its initial years include: Mark Puig, Dorothy Abbott, Keith Roberts, Sunny Hall, Bob Pope, Richard Waugh, Chuck Wilhelm, Larry Fischer, Martin Padgett, Amy Nestor, Lex Poppens, Cathy Prance, Victoria Jorgensen, Brian Winfield, Robert Geller, Michele Greenberg and many more.

Tampa Bay Arts, was an umbrella organization that had taken responsibility for the Tampa Bay Gay Men’s Chorus and several other activities, including producing the film festival. By 1999 Tampa Bay Arts had accumulated a rather large debt.  The lender was trying to collect it.  Tampa Bay Arts was discussing bankruptcy as a way to forestall the collection. Film festival planners feared that the money would just be sucked into that debt, which had nothing to do with the film festival. So they started their own organization to produce the film festival.

After two years of negotiation, Friends of the Festival Inc.  (FOF) was formed and the film festival parted amiably from Tampa Bay Arts. The film festival was finally on its own, fully in charge of its own destiny.  Friends of the Festival, Inc., is a non-profit 501c(3) entity, DBA the Tampa International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

That first start-up year as Friends of the Festival, Inc., in 2000, Jim Harper, FOFs first Board President put up $30,000 of his own money to pay bills until ticket sales and sponsorship revenues started coming in.  He ended up getting most of that money back over the next several years.

The Tampa Bay International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival

TIGLFF is now a 9-day (previously 11-day) juried LGBTQ+ community film festival, one of the largest and longest running of its kind in the world.  Opening Night is traditionally the first Thursday of October and includes 30-40 film screening events, plus several cornerstone parties used to help raise operating funds for the film programming.

Since 1990 TIGLFF has been held at the historic Tampa Theatre, a gloriously restored 1,400 seat theatre built in 1926. Few film festivals in the world have access to a venue as spectacular as this.  Those that do typically will open and or close their festival in a large historical theater, but few have such a space for the entire duration of an 11-day run year after year.  What makes TIGLFF even more special is the street space and plaza out front of the Tampa theatre, which are closed and rented by TILGFF each year for tables, tents, vendors and music, giving the festival community a place to gather and celebrate films, community and the refreshing October weather.

In 2005, FOF expanded to include year-round film programming with a monthly Film Series from January thru August.  Year-round programming has been embraced by the community in both St. Pete and Tampa and continues to draw strong attendance growth in 2009 and 2010.

Additionally, Friends of the Festival added a formal standing Outreach Committee to its bylaws in 2007 to bring free film content for underserved segments of the community throughout the metro area.  One example of FOFs initial outreach screenings was in 2007 in response to the firing of Largo City Commissioner Steve (Susan) Stanton.  The event was held at the Largo Cultural Center, where FOF screened Sarasota filmmaker, Tom Murray’s, documentary film Almost Myself, about transgender identity.

Attendance for the 11-day festival is typically between 10-15,000 including festival parties and panel discussions.  This represents approximately 5-7,000 unique individuals.  There are approximately 300-400 pass holders, who typically see from 12-25 films each. The Simply Fabulous (SF) Pass was created in 2005 and is a cash only pass for $500.  There have been 20-30 SF pass holders each year.  A ticket card was added in 2007 to replace the six-strip ticket discount leveraging technology to allow attendees to purchase ticket online for the first time.

Friends of the Festival (FOF) operates through the support of a working board of directors plus staff, outside contractors and hundreds of volunteers. In recent years there have been two full time staff positions: an Executive/Development Director and a Festival/Business Manager.  FOF also uses outside contract support for the position of Programming Director and Graphic Design. Outside Public relations and website support were taken in-house by staff and board in 2007 to save dollars.

The bylaws allow for up to 15 directors on the board.  The highest number of active sitting directors was 13 from 2008-2009. From 2005 to present, the board has been almost evenly represented with directors residing on both sides of the bay.

Since 2004 FOF has applied for and received grant dollars from the Arts Council of Hillsborough County (ACHC), in all but two of those years (2006 and 2008).  Funding has been $5-$10,000, depending each year on review score and amount ACHC is allocated from the County Commission.  In 2009 and 2010 FOF received its two highest scores from the grant review committee, with a 92 and 92.29. Funds are earmarked for salary support for Development staff.

During the 2004-2008 time frame FOF grew its annual operating budget to nearly $300,000, riding a wave of corporate sponsorship and advertising support, which grew to over $100k in 2007.  As the economy tanked in 2008 advertising and sponsorship revenue fell sharply.  A perfect storm of unrelated items also cut into attendance for the 2008 festival, further dropping revenue.  The board and staff managed to balance the budget in spite of the challenge through deep cost reductions and relentless fundraising.

In 2007 FOF went through a re-branding effort that culminated with the 2008 launch of a new umbrella brand called Clip, which sat above the three main things FOF produced: the Film Festival in October, the monthly Film Series in both St. Pete and Tampa, and year-round Outreach events throughout the metro area.

The Clip branding was intended to be a unifying element for all three of those core activities. Despite misunderstandings the Clip brand unifier was not intended to replace the TIGLFF name, but rather to be used in conjunction with the TIGLFF name.  The new Clip branding replaced all previous graphic elements.  There were couple of reasons to re-brand:

  • Create a short hip name that unified all the things FOF produced in an easy to brand way that would help FOF marketing efforts to create new energy and attract new audience.
  • Traverse the bay and other geographical markers to adequately reflect the true composition of the festival audience, of which roughly half reside outside of Hillsborough County.

Unfortunately, planners rushed to launch the new Clip brand before final approval of the trademark.  Although another company held trademark rights, planners felt at the time there was enough differentiation between what FOF was doing and the other trademark holder, who refused to yield for the limited use of FOF.  FOF’s pro bono trademark attorney advised the board that it was not worth fighting for the trademark and the mark was dropped, returning to a streamlined typographic treatment for TIGLFF with a tag line of Celebrating Life In Pictures.

In the midst of the worst economy the festival has seen, in the hard hit Tampa Bay area, FOF’s board and staff dug deep into their own pockets, savings and even 401k savings to make the festival whole.  The 2009-2010 budgets fell to $200,000, fundraising efforts were expanded, and the 20th anniversary was leveraged to increase donor giving.

With a great deal of work from everyone on the team the festival enjoyed a resurgence in attendance for the 20th anniversary and exited the year with its largest surplus ever of almost $65k.  2010 proved to be an even tougher year to raise funds, further eroding the revenue stream.  Attendance was up for the film series, but fell for the festival. Donor and sponsor revenue were also down, but the board and staff managed to eliminate even more expenses without sacrificing the program line-up and venue.  In the end the organizers were able to cut more than the loss in revenue, adding another small surplus to the carryover from 2009, making the 2011 season start the most financially secure of TIGLFF’s 21 year history, with almost $90k in the bank.

In 2009, FOF established its first endowment trust: the Friends of the Festival Fund, which was created with a gift of $151k from the estate of Alan Dusowitz.  The endowment fund is managed by the Tampa Community Foundation.

The budgets for the 2010 was $203k plus box office receipts for the Tampa Theatre, which do not show up on our budget balance sheet (the theatre deducts their fees from the box office receipts before FOF sees a settlement).  In some years FOF receives cash back and some years we owe the theatre additional dollars.  As FOF continues to change ticket purchasing to more online sales, we can expect the theatre box office to be a shrinking share of revenue.  With the addition of in-kind support, the actual festival budget would be over a quarter of a million dollars.  The budget revenue breakdown of support for 2010 without consideration of in-kind support is as follows:

  • 35% Ticket Sales
  • 25% Advertising and Sponsorship Support
  • 25% Fundraising and Donor Support
  • 8% Festival Parties
  • 7% Grant and Endowment Funds

In 2010 the festival paid tribute to Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio as she appeared at the festival for the last time officially in her role as Mayor.  FOF presented Iorio with a plaque and a tree planted in her honor along the waterfront by the new art museum and children’s playground.  An engraved stone marker is set in the pavement dedicating the tree to Iorio for her inclusive administration.

In 2010, TIGLFF also launched new technology applications, creating new milestones as the organizers continue to advance the festival and keep current and relevant with its audience:

  • Video streaming trailers were added to the website schedule for every film for the first time, along with photo collections giving viewers a more dynamic and engaging look at the films.
  • Facebook integration on the website schedule allowing viewers to comment on each film and read other comments, as well as push their likes into the Facebook social networked community helping us reach more people through word of mouth.
  • E-voting was added for audience favorite awards and tied to scanner technology recording those in the theater for each film. E-mail reminders were also sent as a follow-up, giving people an easy more convenient way to vote as well as connecting with them personally through email and text.
  • The festival’s first post-film Skype Q&A with a filmmaker and actor (Is It Just Me director JC Calcione and actor Nicholas Downs).  Giving both filmmakers and audience more interactive connections, augmenting live appearances with those unable to attend and also keeping costs low while expanding the richness of experience for attendees.  There are many changes occurring concurrently that present fresh and exciting opportunities for festival organizers.  The film industry is changing, GLBT content is changing, distribution is changing, technology and social media are advancing, and there is an ever increasing array of local and regional events and activities (GLBT and non-GLBT) competing for the time, attention and monies of our local community.  As the festival looks forward organizers must address the complexity of these changing dynamics and reinvent itself in fresh, creative and engaging ways.  And they will!