When Terrace Theater co-owner Mike Furlinger announced his plans last summer to launch the inaugural Charleston Film Festival (CFF), the organizers of the Charleston International Film Festival (CIFF) wished him the best, but they were disappointed by his choice of dates — Furlinger's festival is March 11-14 while theirs is April 8-11 — and his selection of a festival name; they're nearly identical. But in an effort to gain the widest exposure possible, a few directors entered their films into both festivals.
James Tilden initially celebrated when he learned his short thriller, Wrench, had been accepted to CIFF and CFF. But that was before he became aware of an International Film Festival stipulation prohibiting any film chosen by the International Festival from being shown in Charleston 60 days prior to the April festival. This sort of exclusivity contract is not uncommon among film fests, or even area music venues and festivals.
For Tilden, he could either have his film in the International Film Festival or the Charleston Film Festival. The choice seemed obvious.
With the International Film Festival in its third year and garnering national attention, Tilden chose the festival with a proven track record. He contacted Furlinger to withdraw his film, but Furlinger refused to allow Tilden to pull out of the Charleston Film Festival. Furlinger eventually offered to let Tilden and the filmmakers behind another feature, Dust, to withdraw from CFF, but only if they paid a $500 fee.
Although CFF's submission form contained no mention of a withdrawal fee, it does include a clause giving Charleston Film Festival permission to screen the films during the festival.
For Furlinger, allowing directors to withdraw from CFF would not be fair to attendees of the Charleston Film Festival. After all, CFF ticket sales work in blocks, with short films and documentaries framing a feature in an all-in-one ticket.
"I'm not going to screw the movie-going public because somebody changed their mind," Furlinger says. "Once a film is accepted and promoted, you can't just pull it out, especially when people have bought tickets to it."
As for the $500, Furlinger says the money was to be used to help cover the cost of the hundreds of hours it take to promote and advertise the films.
Dust writer/director John Barnhardt says he didn't expect withdrawing from CFF to be an issue. "We understand both points of view, and we're trying to position our movie into a festival where it's going to get the most exposure," Barnhardt says, adding that most local films spend far more money on production than they earn.
The director adds, "These festivals are a way to market ourselves as legitimate filmmakers in a community where it's hard to go this route."
According to Barnhardt, the president of the Carolina Film Alliance, short films are resumes for every person involved and can lead to Hollywood jobs if the right people see the film. Barnhardt says he appreciates Furlinger's contributions to the local film scene over the years, but from a business standpoint, he sees CIFF as the more professional festival with the farthest reach.
CIFF co-founder Brian Peacher says that withdrawing films is commonplace among film festivals, especially in the time between submittal and acceptance, due to legal hassles surrounding distribution and other screenings.
David Smith, Dust's producer, says he understands Furlinger's argument that pulling a film could set a precedent, but the way his request was handled has left him reluctant to send the Terrace the film's final cut. The Charleston Film Festival has unfinished "screener" copies of Dust and Wrench.
"It's sort of a catch-22, where if we had more time to fight this, we might have stood a chance," says Smith. "So, do we ultimately give in and give him a copy of the final cut, so he gets to show our polished film, or do we protest and say we're not going to support you anymore, but then he'll show a poor representation of our film?"
Furlinger says he's aghast at the treatment he has received from local filmmakers who he has long supported. He argues that the whole conflict stemmed from the International Film Festival's exclusivity clause. The Charleston Film Festival does not have one.
"I've lost thousands of dollars by donating my theater to South Carolina filmmakers, and that a few of them would do this to me is shocking," Furlinger says. "The public will decide how many film festivals are warranted."
Meanwhile, Peacher has since decided to let both Dust and Wrench air at the International Film Festival. The directors and producers say they're relieved, but how the next month of fests pans out amongst the organizers remains to be seen.
"It's a crazy thing to be going on right now in Charleston," says Dust's Barnhardt. "But for a town that's just trying to build an independent film community, this is a speed bump, not a blockade."
Last week, Furlinger announced the sale of the Terrace to Paul Brown and Barbara Tranter, who currently own the Aurora Theatre in East Aurora, N.Y., saying that it was "time to pass the torch." Brown and Tranter are supporters of independent films, the sort of movies that have made the Terrace the go-to venue for art house- and Sundance-loving movie fans.
Furlinger will maintain ownership of the Hippodrome at Aquarium Wharf, but the CFF will be his last major project as owner of the Terrace Theater on James Island.