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Is Banff Becoming a Victim of Its Own Success?

By Michelle Mason

Participants in the "Africa: Challenging the Myth" panel at Banff Television Festival. Courtesy of Bonner Photography

By Michelle Mason & Jeff Schutts

Promising “innovation, excellence and opportunity,” the Banff Television Festival is one of the most important annual gatherings for international documentary filmmakers. Setting another attendance record at its 23rd annual meeting, over 1,800 delegates from 42 countries found their way to the Canadian Rockies last June. Such accelerating growth has become a hallmark of the Banff Festival’s success. However, some fear that the festival is on the verge of outgrowing the third part of its mandate, particularly when it comes to emerging talent.

These concerns have not gone unnoticed by the festival’s organizers. Banff Television Foundation (BTF) President and CEO Pat Ferns reports that concern about growth and its effect on access has been an ongoing preoccupation for organizers, and is a major focus of recent strategic planning sessions for next year’s festival. “We always said that if (Banff) grew beyond 2,000 delegates, it would radically change the nature of the festival,” Ferns maintains. “We didn’t want that to happen. If you grow, you have to look at other things you can do to maintain quality.”

As part of that strategy, the foundation recently diversified its involvement in the television industry overall. Last year, the BTF launched the World Congress of History Producers in Boston, and took over managing the 2001 World Congress of Science Producers held in Washington, DC. This October the foundation will oversee both events in Berlin.

Commissioning editors at Banff Television Festival. Courtesy of Bonner Photography

The BTF also organizes and manages the Alliance Atlantis Banff Television Executive Program, and is creating a second module for the program’s graduates. Moreover, the BTF is constantly looking at other areas where it can continue to assist content creators, including more website services and professional development programs.

Despite these initiatives, delegates at Banff this year said they are starting to feel squeezed by the festival’s success. In particular, the increasingly disproportionate ratio of producers to commissioning editors has led to what one producer described as a “feeding frenzy” on broadcasters. Producers without a proven track record may find it increasingly difficult to pitch their projects.

With a prohibitive registration fee ($900 US) and high prices for food and accommodations in the small resort town, some filmmakers’ decision to attend the Banff Festival is akin to buying an expensive lottery ticket.

Among the “winners,” Canadian producer Trish Dolman of Vancouver’s Screen Siren Pictures first attended Banff almost ten years ago, when she camped in a tent. As a nominee for a Banff Rockie Award this year for her documentary Ice Girls, Dolman says that the festival continues to be a great resource for her, but agrees that access is not as open as it used to be. “I had a great festival because I know most of the people there now,” Dolman notes. “But some people have said it’s getting too expensive. This year there were a huge number of applicants for fellowships.”

This is discouraging news not only for the filmmakers. To broadcasters, Banff has always been an important place for meeting emerging producers, but some broadcasters have noted they see the number of new producers at the festival dwindling and are taking a more structured approach to the festival. Discovery Channel and Corus Entertainment each held meet-and-greet events, while the CBC scheduled special meeting days to ensure open access for producers.

Jacques Bensimon, director of the National Film Board of Canada. Courtesy of Banff Television Foundation

Unsurprisingly, international filmmakers are facing similar challenges in attending Banff. South African filmmaker Kgomotso Matsunyane was also a Rockie Award nominee for her documentary Heavy Traffic, which was part of the Steps for the Future program featured in this year’s Special Focus on Africa. As a nominee, she was able to attend the festival for free, but couldn’t have afforded to go otherwise.

“Most of the documentary filmmakers I met at Banff are literally living from hand to mouth, lucky to produce one film a year, and having to do corporate and commercial work to make a living,” says Matsunyane. “I don't know a single non-Canadian emerging filmmaker who snagged a deal. But some South African producers made really valuable contacts with different companies from all over the world.”

Building on the success of this year’s Focus on Africa and in an effort to increase the festival’s accessibility to international filmmakers, Banff will next year have a special focus on the Americas. As with everything in filmmaking, however, the bottom line for creating opportunity is money. “If they don’t want Banff to become elite,” says Trish Dolman, “They are going to have to look harder at getting more emerging producers there, maybe creating a ‘new producers day,’ and providing more opportunities for discounts and fellowships.”

Despite the challenges of its success, Banff continues to rate highly among attendees: 85 percent of those surveyed felt they got value from the festival.

“Like with any event, you have to learn how to use it,” says Ferns. “You need to set up meetings beforehand, but some of most valuable contacts are made standing next to someone at a cocktail reception. That continues to be part of the magic of Banff.”


Michelle Mason and Jeff Schutts are filmmakers based in Vancouver, British Columbia.