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Nearly two months ago, the staff and board of the Sedona International Film Festival needed to be lent a helping hand.

The public did just that — nearly a quarter of a million times over.

On May 1, the SIFF board of directors started a $250,000 matching grant campaign challenge in order to help offset growing costs and debts that have been incurred over the year.

Many of the board members, as well as a few from the community, agreed to put up the money with the goal of raising the same amount through donations and their annualmembership drive. As of press time, they had raised $234,000. These donations have come by way of five-figure checks to $75 membership fees and everything in between.

“We are re-energized, excited and so grateful for this support,” SIFF Creative and Development Director Patrick Schweiss said. “It has been a constant outpouring of support from this incredible community. It has been phenomenal. And not just the financial support but verbal comments and nice emails we’ve been getting. In addition, letters and notes when people donate, saying how important the festival and theater are to them and the town.”

The $500,000 will allow SIFF to get out of debt by paying off construction loans, pay back vendors from this year’s festival and gives them operating revenue for several months. Schweiss said volunteers and staff have helped in many ways including coming up with additional revenue sources or new events that can be brought to the Mary D. Fisher Theatre such as the Saturday, July 8, “Grease” sing-a-long.

“It’s a matter of thinking outside the box,” he said. “We don’t just have to be about independent films, ballets or operas. We can have some fun events that will bring people out. The whole tone of the organization has shifted.”

When the campaign started, Schweiss said there were a handful of issues that led to the nonprofit’s financial woes with three that stood out the most. They included:

  • When SIFF built the $1.2 million theater, at the time it only had $5,000 in the bank. SFF immediately took on debt even though Mary D. Fisher funded three-quarters of the theater.
  • They have had a significant increase in the rent they pay to Harkins Theaters during the festival. It increased by 600 percent. They were paying $16,000 to rent their facilities for nine days [prior to the opening of the Mary D. Fisher Theatre]. They are now paying $80,000. He said the price increase hurt them but where Schweiss said he made the mistake was that they didn’t adjust their expenditures to reflect that.
  • Finally, SIFF venturing into the concert business.

“As fabulous as they have been and people love them, they have killed us financially,” Schweiss said.

Chicago [who performed in 2016] was a major financial blow. They lost over $50,000 and there were two sold-out shows. They were not prepared for the backend fees such as stage hands, catering, tech group etc.

“It all added up, and by that time there was no turning back,” he said. “We realized we need to get back to our roots — that being film.”

While the money is important, Schweiss said equally important is to have a plan to ensure it doesn’t happen again. He said he and the board know that while this time the community has stepped up in a big way, that may not be the case if they come with their hand out in a year or two.

“Our commitment is that we want people to know this is a one-time request,” he said. “We have restructured the organization and budget to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Our whole way as to how we do our month-to-month operation has shifted so that we can always keep ahead of the game without spending beyond our means.”

While tightening their belts, he said the board didn’t want to let the community down by offering anything less than what they have in the past in terms of the festival’s duration or the number and quality of films shown.

They will be restructuring the use of the venues to reduce some costs such as eliminating the latenight movie showings while taking more advantage of the Sedona Performing Arts Center. They will still have the evening parties but reduce the costs while eliminating the high-priced opening-night concerts.

“I wish people could have been a fly on the wall to see the incredible work this board has done,” he said. “They went from meeting every two months to weekly and sometimes more. They sat down and asked, ‘How are we going to do this? And how will we maintain our quality and quantity while living within our means?’ This incredible group of people did it.”

In the end, Schweiss and the board want to thank the community for lending that helping hand.

“The outpouring that had been shown to us — we can’t put into words just what that means,” he said. “We promise we’re going to make the community proud and let them know that they have invested wisely in our future. I just can’t say thank you enough. Thank you, thank you, thank you a million times over.”

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