The decision to lay off key Cork Film Festival staff has sparked ire, writes Dan Buckley
IN movie-making terms, there is nothing like a bit of conflict to keep the audience primed for more, so it is hardly a surprise that the public row between the board of Cork Film Festival and its former CEO Mick Hannigan has already got the Twitter brigade on overdrive.
Hannigan, synonymous with the festival for almost 30 years, has been laid off, along with festival programmer Una Feely.
Of the three senior permanent staff, only Sean Kelly, the festival’s manager, has been retained.
Hannigan and Feely are aggrieved, believing the board of the festival, which is a registered charity, has been less than charitable in its dealings with them.
Board chairman Denis McSweeney does not see it that way, believing that a relatively small, niche festival can no longer afford to employ a CEO, manager and programmer.
“The reason is a financial one. We lost our title sponsor, Corona, and the Arts Council will not confirm funding until April. I feel very sorry for both of them. They have made a huge contribution over the years to the cultural life of Cork. I have known Mick for aeons, so it was not a decision that the board took lightly, but it had to be made. The accountant says the financial situation is deteriorating, so that means that unpalatable decisions had to be made.”
While acknowledging the contribution made by Hannigan since he took over the running of the festival in 1986, he sees change at the top as not just desirable but essential to ensure its future. Having commissioned an independent review of the festival, the board is now adamant that the changes outlined will be put in place: the departure of Hannigan and Feely is just the first step.
“The entire company took part in the independent review process and now we have to act to ensure we carry through the recommendations,” said McSweeney.
“A lot of these decisions were hard, but they had to be taken.”
The review of the festival was conducted by Richard Wakely, a Dublin-based dance and theatre producer and arts management consultant, and Ron Inglis, a Cork-based arts and media consultant.
The review is critical of current managerial and organisational structures and states that a new vision for the future is needed if the festival is to survive.
It also questions productivity levels, noting that a relatively well-funded festival should not be confined to one week in the year.
The report offers a blueprint for the future and states that the festival needs to consider and address what its unique selling point is for audiences at home and abroad.
“It should seek to define itself not as an industry-led event but as a place for audiences and young and emerging filmmakers to come together.”
The report adds that the film festival must clarify its positioning by making clear and stating its areas of interest. It also recommends a review of programme policy and says guidelines should be agreed so programmers and stakeholders understand the aims of each festival.
The report urges a strengthening of relationships with British and Irish film distributors to build a stronger feature/world cinema programme.
It also recommends what it describes as more “red carpet” events.
“The aim should be to work with distributors and producers to bring a greater number of the creative personnel associated with high- profile films to the screenings — enhance the red carpet aspect of the festival.”
It also calls for a review of the scheduling of films from two perspectives — the general cinema-lover and the industry professional.
“The festival will need to raise its game considerably, if it stays in November, to compete for high-profile features. The festival should partner with local colleges and their digital media and filmmaking units.”
While the report did not specifically recommend the removal of Hannigan and Feely, it was highly critical of productivity levels.
“There is a question regarding productivity of a relatively well-funded operation that only produces one, annual eight-day event,” it states. “It is therefore recommended that Cork Film Festival examine its current staffing to ensure it has the right mix.”
While Wakely and Inglis acknowledge that last year’s festival appeared to have maintained audiences of recent years — around 23,000 — they say more could be done, and there should be a greater commitment to audience development and engagement.
The festival receives in the region of €370,000 a year, but it has accumulated a deficit of around €30,000. The report recommends that a plan be agreed with the Arts Council and Cork City Council to remove the accumulated deficit by 2015.
At the same time, it says that not enough is being spent on programming.
“Serious consideration should be given to increasing the proportion of the annual budget spent on the programme from its current level of circa €15,000,” it says.
In order to fund this it says that serious consideration should be given to the introduction of a submission charge for films, to create a new income stream to be reinvested in the annual programme. “A €10 charge per each of the 2,000 submissions would generate an extra €20,000 for programming.”
The report is particularly critical of management.
“The poor management and organisational culture within CFF must be addressed as a priority,” it says.
“Without clear and immediate action in this area, it is questionable whether the event can remain both viable and sustainable.”
It also recommends that the board annually reviews its own performance “in the light of good practice in governance”.
Anyone ‘of a certain age’ might recall two major cinematic achievements in Cork in the 1950s. One was the filming of John Huston’s Moby Dick in Youghal in 1954. The other was the opening of the first Cork Film Festival in 1956.
In the 1950s Ireland’s first film festival brought excitement and glamour to an impoverished city. Thousands of people would mill outside the Savoy Cinema to get a glimpse of the latest Hollywood star.
The review into the future of the festival suggests going back to the future — with more ‘red carpet’ events and more feature films.
That would have been a bridge too far for Mick Hannigan, even if he hadn’t been made redundant.
“The prospect is that you will end up with a week of cinema rather than a film festival,” he says, noting that he and Una Feely are very concerned for the future of the festival.
“Going down the ‘red carpet’ route means the richness of the festival will be lost.”
They are not alone. Last year, less than two months after Denis McSweeney took over as chairman, board member Norah Norton resigned, citing differences with the direction in which the festival was heading.
More recently, fellow board member Francis Lynch also resigned. In her resignation letter to McSweeney, she said: “My vision for Cork Film Festival is completely at variance with those of my colleagues on the board and it would be dishonest of me to stay on the board to legitimise the direction in which my colleagues are taking the CFF. The course the board is taking makes me realise that I must be open about my support for Mick Hannigan’s vision and running of the film festival.”
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