Festival Management 101
November 11, 2009 5:08 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to start a festival. This time I actually have a plan and possibly some people. Where do I start?

After being mildly frustrated at the local alt-arts scene, I made a plan for a fringe/indie/alt arts festival that showcases minority and culturally diverse performers. I've been inspired by the upcoming Shades of Burlesque festival and the Kaleidoscope Cabaret festival (both for burlesque performers of colour; Kaleidoscope has a more queer focus) and basically want to do something similar in Australia. It would be the first of its sort in my area, if not the country. (Kaleidoscope has a pretty good outline of how I want my festival to run)

I made up a quick plan outlining how the festival will run, a wishlist of people and resources, and further questions. I've got a few people interested, and just had a chat this afternoon with someone whose job is to help young people with their creative projects. I've also been collecting advice here and there.

Where do I start? My contact this arvo suggested I write a 1-2 page brief to the organisations whose involvement I'm after outlining the festival idea and what I need. Who should I go after first - venues, presenters, sponsors, all at once? It seems a bit chicken and egg.

I figure the earliest this festival will take place will be mid-late 2010. Right now people are finishing up year-end projects before going on holidays, so any major meetings will only really take place in January. What can I do between now and then that won't take up people's time? I anticipate that some of my presenters and brains will likely be from outside Australia - how do I plan for travel expenses and that sort of thing?

What resources have you found useful in festival planning? Any software, reading material, guides, people that are handy? Any grants or funding bodies that make good contacts? (I'm not a permanent resident yet so 99% of Aussie grants are off-limits to me; however, if I'm auspiced, the auspicing org could apply on my behalf) Any creative methods that have worked well for others?

(The plan is in a public Google document; MefiMail me if you'd like to take a look.)
posted by divabat to Media & Arts (6 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Where do I start? My contact this arvo suggested I write a 1-2 page brief to the organisations whose involvement I'm after outlining the festival idea and what I need. Who should I go after first - venues, presenters, sponsors, all at once? It seems a bit chicken and egg.

I say this after having helped to coordinate 7 benefit events, 5 contest receptions, 2 one-act play festivals, and 3 opening-night parties, and having witnessed 3 play festivals as well.

You do sort of have to go after everything all at once, because things just take a while to fall into place.

However, there is one thing you should do first:

* A detailed plan. What exact shape is this festival going to take? Is it performance, or visual art? Or both? What is the audience participation going to be like (i.e., will you have all spectator-y stuff, or will there be audience participation at anything)? Is there an awards element? Any special activities for kids or teens? Any thing schools can bring a class to? Any lectures? Any just plain parties? How much production support are you going to give your artists (i.e., will you provide a lighting guy and a sound guy for everyone, or does everyone have to bring their own)?

*A detailed BUDGET. Knowing approximately how much you can afford on things will be invaluable in helping you make decisions going forward, obviously.

* A staff. If you try to do all of this alone you will run mad. The more people you can recruit to throw at some of the legwork, the better.

Once you get that sorted out, then you can start working on:

* The venues. Lots of places book a while in advance, so the sooner you can get in, the better.

* The technical equipment: lights, sound system, stage. Some of the venues may already have this, others may want you to rent your own. Once you decide what venues you are having you'll know what technical elements you need.

* The talent. Lining up the people you want -- the artists, the performers, the lecturers if you're having any. Getting the venues and tech at least partly signed up first will let you be able to tell them that "we can provide X, we're working on Y, you'll have to bring your own Z".

* The food: if you're having any parties or receptions, you need food. Some beverage manufaturers may be willing to make an in-kind donation to you, or give you a steep discount, if you make a deal that THEIR brand of wine/beer/cider/soda/whatever is the only one you serve at your receptions. (We once got a great deal for the opening night party for a Jewish-themed play we produced from a new beer company named "He-Brew".) As for food, if you have enough staff or volunteers, recruit people to donate stuff they make (I have made plenty of dip, cookies, and cheese puffs in my day). Or, you could hold your reception at a restaurant -- rent out a room for the evening and let the restaurant handle it.

* The publicity. If someone on your staff knows how to write up press kits, great. If not, you need to talk to a publicist who can handle preparing the materials and getting the word out. You'll also want to have someone on hand who's good with design who can design the poster and ads, plus the web page, programs, tickets, etc. If you're doing something low-key, you COULD get away with a few good pictures and someone who's really good with Photoshop, but the bigger you want this, the more professional you're going to want to look. You may be able to talk to people at an art school and find someone young and hungry who may want to take this on as a pet project or a portfolio-building thing -- if you're PROFOUNDLY lucky, you may even find there's a school near you that has a class in some of the elements you're looking for, and can make friends with a professor who can give you someone (one of my theater companies has a deal with the School of Visual Arts' "photographing Performances" professor -- instead of hiring a professional to take all the photos of each of our productions, the professor schedules one of our final dress rehearsals as a "field trip" for his class. They come in to the rehearsal and photograph everything, then everyone sends us copies of their photos. The teacher gets an assignment to grade, we get photos of our shows, everyone wins.)

Good luck.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:49 AM on November 11, 2009

Oh, one last thing:

START YOUR FUNDRAISING NOW. A lot of it. You will have to lay out a huge amount of money very soon, you will need a lot of it, and there is also no guarantee you will recoup all of your expenses in ticket sales. In fact, if you break even this first year, consider it a wild success.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:57 AM on November 11, 2009

You need a "vision" of what the event is about. Then you need to be vicious about throwing out any nifty ideas that aren't key to your vision.

You need a budget. So you need some costings on venues, performers (and their expenses), publicity and whatever else you want to spend money on. Make sure you know how much you need to pay up front and when. It's sometimes possible to persuade performers to front their own travel expenses, depending on your reputation and theirs. It's wise to discuss up front how much those travel expenses may be, as they can add up very quickly.

A venue with a bar is making money over the bar from the people you bring in, so they can potentially be much cheaper than a similar venue with no bar.

Don't forget that an artist in a venue needs sound, lighting, and people to operate these, as well as sufficient time to rehearse beforehand. You need to be clear on who is providing these and who is paying for it. Some artists may have other odd technical requirements that have to be hired in. Some venues may not allow your people to operate their equipment, but make you pay for their staff or else bring your own kit.

Once you have a budget you can apply for funding, but bear in mind that if you're not careful, the turnaround on funding applications can mean that you only get the go-ahead when it's really too late to book performers. Good people (and venues) will be booked up a year in advance for popular dates. So you also need a project plan, with a timeline of when everything needs to be done, and which things depend on other things.

If you have other people on your team, make sure they are on the same page as you about the goals of the organisation. Then make sure you can give them a self-contained job that they have the ability and the confidence to do without needing enormous amounts of support from you.

Also remember that just because you like somebody, or just because they are very talented or clever or well known or enthusiastic, doesn't necessarily mean they will be able to follow through on their promises. People are very good at agreeing to things they can't or won't really do.

Finally, if it's not under contract it's not happening (this particularly applies to performers and venues).

MefiMail me if you want to chat about it.
posted by emilyw at 5:59 AM on November 11, 2009

Empress, above, knocks the answer outta the park.

I'd stress that it's going to cost money, and it's hard to get folks to give you money your first time. There's two things you can do to mitigate that.

Plan something of reasonable scale. If it works the first year, it's *much* easier to make it bigger the second year. Picture your "best event ever", then start paring things off that aren't dealbreakers. Aim for that, and if you have extra money, time, and help, make it bigger, but set your expectations as reasonably as possible for the first time around.

First, talk to everyone that would be charging you money, explain what you want to do, and get a firm idea of what it's going to cost. When a potential moneylender, sponsor, etc asks you how much money you need, it's remarkably easier to get money from them if you have rough numbers and can back them up. (Sound company A wants $1200, but sound company B is willing to do the event for $850 if they're available on the final date. It's going to cost $400 to have 2000 flyers printed, which will be posted at the following locations, and given out after these other related events. etc.) It's great to feel out potential sources of capital, but it's easier if you have a rough budget first, then feel out sources of capital second.
posted by talldean at 6:10 AM on November 11, 2009

experience working at other festivals and behind the scenes is going to be a huge bonus for you. meeting/working with a community radio station/organisation such as 4ZzZ could be helpful in terms of securing sponsorship, getting contacts, assistance and suggestions for promotions, bands, talent, etc.

start small and learn from the experience - you don't have to have international acts and the whole kitchen sink first time around. do check out what went wrong with the blueprint festival, so that you won't be hiding in exile after your first attempt!

in terms of funding, it's important to know where the money is, and what you call your festival and the aims and objectives can make and break things. TINA started out as the Young Writers Festival - because the name meant funding would be simpler.

philanthropy australia might be helpful - it sounds like you get to get the backbone of the organisation itself sorted first - who is going to do the work, how, when and why?

given that you've been involved with australian universities - hooking into their student union/arts programs, resources and funding could be a huge help and resource to you. good luck!
posted by gusset at 12:59 AM on November 12, 2009

In Brisbane right? Queensland has laws that are a bit... shiteous? (Sleazy politicians + prudish wives = Our Legislation??) So - please forgive me if I would seem to be implying anything here :)

If the content of your festival falls under Adult Entertainment you'd need to apply for a permit and also be subject to various restrictions and conditions.
Adult Entertainment Code states (AE) is entertainment of an explicit sexual nature. And then goes on for 2 pages describing all the various sex acts that aren't covered. (...thx.)

Anyway, while trying to find out what is 'sexually explicit', I've stumbled across this ARTS LAW CENTER OF AUSTRALIA - Organising a festival (checklist)
Wow, I am suitably impressed with that site. What facts sheet haven't they covered there!? I reckon that they would have to be pretty darn handy.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 8:16 AM on November 12, 2009

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