Acting on a hunch that Baltimore just might have enough cineastes to support an annual gathering, Jed Dietz in 1999 launched the Maryland Film Festival.
Nine festivals later, Baltimore's early-spring celebration of all things cinematic is still going strong. It's not the world's biggest or flashiest, but with such unique touches as an opening-night shorts program and a film screening chosen and introduced by the incorrigibly decadent John Waters, it suits Baltimore just fine.
Over four spring days, films and filmmakers from all over are brought to the five-screen Charles Theatre. No prizes are awarded, and big-time celebrity sightings are rare. But nobody complains. The atmosphere is genial and pressure-free. The movies are often small-budget, low-profile productions (a film cast entirely with sock puppets, like 2006's The Lady From Sockholm, probably won't show up at the local multiplex). And it's nice, for a weekend at least, to have a block of North Charles Street turned into a movie lover's heaven.
Dietz, 60, has no special plans for this year's 10th festival, which is scheduled for May 1-4 - just more of what festival-goers have come to expect, including a popular program in which politicians, artists and other celebrities outside the film community present a movie that means something special to them. At his cramped office in the festival's Read Street headquarters, we asked Dietz about the event's past and its future. Did you see the festival as a long-term thing, or did you see this as a one- or two-year thing that would go up in flames, but be great?
What I said [to potential funders] at the time was, "Stick with us for three years, give us at least three years." So if we really stumbled coming out of the box, we'd at least have a couple years to get it right.
The first impulse was to do an event that would draw filmmakers to the area. When they come here, they like us. ... Even films they didn't get to shoot here, when they were scouting locations, people would always go away saying, "Gosh, what an interesting place. Visually interesting, people are friendly, the crew base is better than we thought," all that stuff.
We certainly didn't know whether anybody would show, or come to see movies that, by definition, nobody had yet heard of. Would they be interested in the first place? We didn't know anything. The city's film history at that point was not really positive. The old Baltimore Film Forum had gone under, the Charles had had its problems. What made you think that you'd be able to do what others hadn't been able to do?
We didn't know, not really. But one thing that I thought was very clear, about the Baltimore International Film Festival and the Film Forum: They had never had the capital resources to get the word out about what they were doing.
I didn't think we were going to start with a big advertising campaign, like any sizable art presentation, even in this town, needs. But I thought we could get the word out, and that that might be the key. That we could invite people in a way that hadn't been done before. How long was the planning process for that first festival?
A year and a half, maybe? Some of that was mainly fundraising, because I was so determined that we get some money up front, so we could get through a couple of festivals. I thought we'd be received well, and we were. Has it been hard, getting corporate sponsorships?
No. The minute you got one, you started in for the next one. The big issue, the place that we are right now, is that we put this thing together really on a shoestring. Our budget is small, between $300,000 and $350,000 a year.
If you look around at the festival world, the biggest guys - I don't know Cannes, but I do know Tribeca, Sundance - are probably in the $20 million operating range. Toronto's probably $30 million, Cannes is probably bigger than that.
But Telluride's a little over $3 million. Full-Frame, the documentary weekend festival in Durham, is about $1.4 million. We need to get to that $1.2 million operating budget.
We're in the middle of a planning process to get to that. That would be perfect. Can we get there? Yeah, we can. But is it a certainty? No. What if you don't get there? Can the festival keep going on a $350,000 budget?
You can certainly stage something for $350,000 a year. But you can't take advantage of the chance to build a major new event in the community at that level. You can fit anything to any level, but my goal from the very beginning was to really build a world-class, top-rated film festival on our own terms, that reflected all of Baltimore's wild and crazy personality. To get to that next level, we're going to need a big infusion of capital. How do you market the festival to potential underwriters?
It's very simple. When you look at what we had in the city already - great museums, two big sports teams, great symphony, great school for the arts, great educational base - one thing you didn't have was a film festival.