Lessons learned from a first-time fest

Orlando International FF off to rocky start

Exclusive to MeierMovies, September 23, 2020

If a film screens at a festival but there’s no audience, does it make a sound?

I received the answer on September 17 when I attended the inaugural day of the Orlando International Film Festival (OIFF) and was, for one feature film and one shorts block, the only person in the house. Though the answer to my rhetorical question is, of course, yes, that surely doesn’t lessen the disappointment of festival organizers, or the filmmakers who, like the public, failed to show for this first-time festival.

The new event was admittedly fraught from the outset, enduring at least two postponements and a change of venue from the Orange County Convention Center in south Orlando to the Enzian Theater in Maitland. But the problems weren’t entirely the fault of the organizers. After all, if you think it’s difficult getting a new festival off the ground in good times, try doing it in the middle of a health crisis. Still, there are lessons to be learned from the failings (and successes) of the Orlando International Film Festival, which wraps up tomorrow and Friday. And those lessons are invaluable for every organizer of a new festival. So I offer the following analysis not to criticize the OIFF as much as to caution other first-time fests.



A new festival must build trust with its filmmakers, the public and the media. And good communication can go a long way to compensating for newbie problems, such as lack of money and name recognition. Unfortunately, the OIFF earlier in the year posted conflicting dates on its website (https://www.orlandointernationalfilmfestival.org/), its Facebook page and Film Freeway. When I e-mailed festival founder and director Florence Alexander, I never got an explanation for the discrepancy. And when the dates and venue were finally nailed down, I received no follow-up e-mail, as I was promised. (The festival’s Twitter page still says it’s taking place May 28 at the “Orlando Convention Center.”)

Even more important is accurate information about the films. Websites and brochures must gel with the program itself. For OIFF, they didn’t. In the case of the suspense/horror shorts, one film listed on the website (Rainy Season) was not shown, while another that was not listed on the website started the block. (I still don’t know the name of that French film, which is disappointing because it was the best of the group. When I asked the festival staff, they said they didn’t know but that the movie’s information would be on the website shortly. It wasn’t. Instead, the entire day’s program was removed from the schedule.)


Create a user-friendly schedule

Remember that your attendees are people, and people need to sleep. Starting a festival at 8:15 a.m. just isn’t practical. People also need to eat, so don’t forget to build breaks for munching and networking. Those activities are just as essential to a festival as the films.

No OIFF staff members seemed to know in advance whether the Enzian would be serving food in the theater. That announcement was left to Enzian staff, who said food would be available outside at Eden Bar, rather than in the theater. That meant the roughly half-dozen of us who attended the suspense/horror block, which ended at 11:30 a.m. had to run to order food before the start of the next program, the feature Bad Witch, at 11:50 a.m. And the food still wasn’t ready on time. I guess that might explain why I was the only one in the audience for that, except for a couple of volunteers. Everyone else seemingly chose food over film.

This also begs the larger question: If you rent the Enzian, shouldn’t you know whether you’ve been promised food service? I was going to bring this up to Alexander, but she didn’t show up. To be fair, staff told me she was ill. I wish her well. Still, if you’re asking patrons and staff to attend your festival in the middle of pandemic, you better do all you can to be there. Or make sure there is someone serving as host, welcoming everyone and introducing the programs. Showmanship counts! (One person gave an intro and outro for the suspense/horror block, but no announcements were made to start or end Bad Witch or the afternoon comedy block.)


Pick a great venue

I’ve seen too many new festivals rent space in bars or comic-book stores or other places not conducive to watching films. And they project the films in standard definition, with bad sound and wrong aspect ratios. So my simple advice is if you can’t afford a decent venue and proper equipment, it might be time to rethink your priorities.

By renting the Enzian (Orlando’s leading art-house cinema), the OIFF got it right. For all their other shortcomings, they at least managed to show respect for their filmmakers by screening the movies the right way. That bodes well for their future. (Even the successful Love Your Shorts Film Festival didn’t do that well in its inaugural year.)


Reach out to the media

I don’t mean to sound like a privileged critic, but it would behoove all new festivals to show the media some love. After all, we’re the ones who can spread the word. That’s crucial if the festival can’t afford advertising.

In the case of OIFF, I paid my own way: $50 for a day. Even with that hefty price tag, I was glad to support a new festival – if only they could have met me halfway by sharing information in advance. I must say that the staff at the actual event were friendly and accommodating, and I think they felt genuinely embarrassed to be misinformed. One woman even offered to bring my food into the theater so I wouldn’t miss any of the movie. But it should have never reached that point.


Don’t get too big for your britches

Confidence is one thing. Promising things you can’t deliver is another. Successful festivals take time to build enthusiasm and support, and don’t overreach. And while it’s important to dream big, it’s also important to be realistic.

Keep prices reasonable. In the case of OIFF, $50 is too much for a day. And $100 for a virtual pass (which allows you to watch all the content online) might seem reasonable until you remember that the Oscar-accredited Florida Film Festival charged less for its virtual pass earlier this year. The inflated pricing should have become painfully obvious when festival organizers compared their cost structure to other, well-established events.

Making the festival seem even more out of touch are its glowing testimonials and claims of multiple discussion panels, filmmaking opportunities and cash prizes, in addition to a page on their website that offers memberships for as much as $1,000. The promised “full access to celebrity lounge” sounds pretty nice. But remember: For about four hours last Thursday, I was the ONLY one at the festival. And the last time I checked, I’m not a celebrity. I don’t mean to sound harsh, as even the world’s best festivals have been canceled or scaled back this year. Still, it behooves a new festival to be humble and practical. And though all the aforementioned perks might still be in the works for future events (and some did happen this year, just virtually), the festival should have accurately described this year’s scaled-down event.


As with most new festivals, OIFF will – I hope – lick its wounds and get back in the game with a less expensive, better structured and better attended event next year. Holding it in south Orlando, as originally planned, might be a good option, as that part of town has a dearth of film events. (Location, location, location.) Hey, maybe they could event rent the new Alamo Drafthouse, if it eventually opens. If they do, I’ll be the first in line.


© 2020 MeierMovies, LLC

Note: The Orlando International Film Festival is not affiliated with the Enzian Theater; it just rented space. It is also not affiliated with the Orlando Film Festival.