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Earlier this week, the Sedona International Film Festival sent out a bit of an S.O.S. with the hopes of generating enough financial support in order to right the ship.

So far it is working.

The SIFF board of directors has started a $250,000 matching grant campaign challenge in order to help offset growing costs and debts that have been incurred over the year. [See sidebar story below.]

Creative and Development Director Patrick Schweiss discussed how the nonprofit has come to find itself in its current financial situation and what they have planned for the future to avoid it happening again.

Q: Are you optimistic in terms of the matching grant campaign?

Very optimistic. We’ve already begun and had significant contributions made.

People are upping and renewing their memberships. We have the $250,000 in place and funds are released as donations come in to handle our operations. We haven’t had a membership increase since opening the theater yet we’ve added more things along the way.


So far we’ve had some wonderful donations that have come in. We have more than 1,000 members who are very dedicated to us and for that we are very grateful.

Q: Is the $250,000 guaranteed or is that just the maximum matching dollar amount?

Yes and we’re confident we can raise the other $250,000 to match that. It’s a guaranteed $250,000 but it’s a matter of when it’s released. Some have already given it and some have guaranteed it and that money is now in an account.

The first few days of the campaign, we’ve already raised $40,000 [part cash and part commitments]. We’ve shifted things in the operation so that we’re not spending money that we don’t have. 

Q: If successful in matching the $250,000, will that eliminate the financial issues the festival is having?

Absolutely — that’s the whole goal of this and the reason for that figure. Basically, $250,000 is to eliminate our long-term debt that we knew we took on when we built the theater. The other $250,000 is to pay some short-term things that we still owe and give up operating revenue for the next several months. So it’s a two-part campaign.

Q: What happens if that amount is not matched?

We’re very confident that it will happen but if that amount is not matched, we need to look at things we can cut without seeing a cut in the quality or quantity of what we’re offering. 

We’re relying a lot more on volunteers now and cut back on some positions. We’re calling this the “right the ship campaign.” We’re hitting the reset button. We’re not operating in crisis mode, we’re operating in reset mode.

Q: What are the three biggest contributing factors to the SIFF’s current financial situation?

First and foremost, when we built this $1.2 million theater, at the time we only had $5,000 in the bank. We immediately took on debt. Mary D. Fisher generously funded three-quarters of the theater. So the board and film festival was responsible for covering the rest.

We don’t for one moment regret opening the theater. But from the moment we opened the theater, we were in debt.


Secondly, we have had a significant increase in the rent we pay to Harkins Theaters. It increased by 600 percent. We were paying $16,000 to rent their facilities for nine days [prior to the opening of the Mary D. Fisher Theatre]. We are now paying $80,000.


The price increase hurt us but where I made the mistake is that we didn’t adjust our expenditures to reflect that. I just kept thinking, “We can get out of this and recoup it next year,” and that didn’t happen.

For five years we have dealt with that significant price increase and it’s a lot for a nonprofit to overcome.

Third was us venturing into the concert business. As fabulous as they have been and people love them, they have killed us financially. Chicago [who performed in 2016] killed us. It was the best thing for our festival and the worst thing for our financial bottom line. We lost over $50,000 and there were two sold-out shows. We were not prepared for the back-end fees [stage hands, catering, tech group etc.]. It all added up and by that time there was no turning back. We realized we need to get back to our roots — that being film.

Q: When was the “Oh, wow” moment in which you knew there were problems?

It was after Chicago. I kept thinking I could get us out of this. We were keeping current on our loans with the Mary D. Fisher Theatre but the “ah-ha” moment really did come after the concert last year. Six weeks ago I went to the board and said we have to do something else. We can’t keep operating like this. I told them I needed their help to come up with a way to eliminate the debt and move forward and start from ground zero.

Q: What types of changes can people expect to see?

Scaled down version for a while? From the film festival itself we’re looking at the number of days. Is nine days too long? Can we provide the same amount of quality things in a day or two less? Do we do less things at Harkins and more things at the SPAC? Or a combination of there and at Mary D. Fisher. Do we have to have a party every night? Some are totally donated while others we pay some things for.

Q: At any point was there talk of disbanding the festival?

There was never talk of disbanding but there was talk of taking a year or two off or significantly changing it for next year.

Q: Aside from your title change, any other changes in terms of staffing or responsibilities?

It was at my request [title change and voluntary pay cut] that we looked at this. It’s in no way a demotion. I’m still doing absolutely everything I was doing before. But what’s been taken off my plate are the financials. I don’t like doing them, it’s not my strong suit. I want to focus on what my strong suits are.

We’ve formed a finance committee on the board and have included outside community members, such as our banker and accountant, who will be handling that. It’s a positive thing in the direction we’re going. It’s a good system of checks and balances.

Q: SIFF has a major obstacle ahead of you but do you feel it’s something that can be conquered?

Absolutely. I speak not only for myself but for the board. We believe in it and the community believes in us. Yes, we need help. We’re not covering anything up. We need the help now because we want to hit that reset button.

We bring almost $4 million in the community during the festival. We want to continue to do that. From this point forward, we’re not spending money we don’t have.

That’s our new mantra. We are stressing that this is a one-time aggressive campaign. We turn 25 in two years. Our plan is to right the ship and really look forward to some big plans for our 25th anniversary.

Film board launches fundraising campaign

As the Sedona International Film Festival heads into its 24th year, and five years after opening the Mary D. Fisher Theatre, the SIFF Board of Directors has launched a $250,000 matching challenge grant campaign as part of an aggressive broad-based strategy to offset increasing costs and reduce debt. With underwriting from several donors, every new or renewed membership as well as any additional financial contributions over and above membership fees will be matched up to $250,000.

The matchingchallenge campaign and membership drive will run through Friday, June 30. Beginning Wednesday, May 10, membership rates will increase depending upon the level and benefits. However, as an incentive, anyone renewing or signing up through May 10 can do so at current rates, which will be matched.

“The Sedona International Film Festival has grown so fast that it has been a struggle to keep up with annual operating expenses and control our debt,” SIFF Board of Directors Chairwoman Beverly Hurff said. “Because income and revenue — both earned and contributed — haven’t been enough to cover expenses, we must rethink our business model, redesign our operating structure and consider every option and opportunity available to us.

“That may include changes to the festival itself. The process will involve feedback from our members and is ongoing, fluid and very aggressive.”

With the help of member and sponsor input, the festival is taking a hard look at all of the expenses of both the theater and festival.

“Our goal is a level of efficiency which sustains the quality of our programming throughout the year,” Creative and Development Director Pat Schweiss said. “We want to ensure that prices remain affordable and reasonable for the community.”

There have only been minor increases since doubling the length of the festival to 10 days, and none in the past five years, he said. “The Mary D. Fisher Theatre is the heart of Sedona’s cultural landscape and the Sedona International Film Festival is a vital major economic, cultural and community event that attracts thousands of people and unmatched goodwill to Sedona,” Schweiss said.
“The 2017 festival contributed nearly $4 million to the local economy, according to a recently completed independent economic impact study. Those are significant dollars.”

As of May 10, membership levels for the Mary D. Fisher Theatre and Sedona International Film Festival will be:

  • Single membership: $75, up from $65
  • Family membership: $150, up from $130 n Cinematographer: $300, up from $275
  • Screenwriter: $625, up from $550
  • Producer: $1,400, up from $1,200

All other membership-level rates will remain the same.

“Our community has come to embrace, love and support the Mary D. Fisher Theatre and Sedona International Film Festival,” Schweiss said. “We hear over and over that our theatre is the cultural heart of Sedona. Our board, staff and volunteers are committed to seeing that never changes.”

To make a donation and to renew or start a membership, visit the Sedona International Film Festival website.

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