History boy: A prime mover of Tampa's gay filmfest reflects on the past 20 years

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[Editor's Note: We asked Jim Harper, the first president of Friends of the Festival, Inc., to reflect on why the Tampa International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival has endured for two decades. This is his reply.]

WHY THE FESTIVAL HAS SUCCEEDED AND PROSPERED OVER THE YEARS

At every moment in the film festival's history, a number of people have stepped up and done whatever needed to be done. Some gave more time and money than they could afford. They did it because they loved this festival, and they wanted to see it survive and prosper. This is true no matter which era or which producing organization we're talking about; whether it was the Tampa Bay Business Guild; Crescendo—The Tampa Bay Womyn's Chorus; the Tampa Bay Gay Men's Chorus; the Human Rights Task Force (now known as Equality Florida); Tampa Bay Arts; or the women and men who started Friends of the Festival during a period of crisis 10 years after the festival's founding. Dedicated volunteers in each of these groups played a crucial role in protecting and growing this film festival.

Some of the key names I remember from the first 12 or 13 years: Mark Puig, Dorothy Abbott, Keith Roberts, Sunny Hall, Bob Pope, Richard Waugh, Chuck Wilhelm, Larry Fischer (a St. Pete CPA who, in addition to serving many years as the festival's volunteer treasurer, came almost every night to work the carousel slide projector in the balcony, so that our sponsors and business partners could be recognized between films). Martin Padgett, Amy Nestor, Lex Poppens, Cathy Prance, Victoria Jorgensen, Brian Winfield, Robert Geller, Michele Greenberg. There are many more I haven't named.

And, of course, the many rank-and-file volunteers — the people who take tickets, pick up empty cups and popcorn bags between films, manage the waiting lines, fetch filmmakers from the airport, work in the office, take film canisters back to Federal Express, hand out free refreshments to Crown Circle passholders, and do all the other things that must be done when you're moving thousands of people, and their money, and rare copies of precious films, in and out of several theaters over the space of 11 days. There have been hundreds and hundreds of volunteers. People really do see this as a community service. They want to help. I don't think we've ever had trouble recruiting volunteers.

CRISIS AND TRANSITION

I am sometimes asked how the film festival survived a major financial crisis and gained its independence earlier this decade. (The festival had started, in part, as a fundraiser for other groups.) Here's my perspective.

During its first ten years, the festival had become quite a success — largely through Dorothy Abbott's programming, the commitment of countless volunteers, and the hunger that so many people had for the communal experience of seeing lesbian, gay, bisexual and (occasionally) transgender stories on the big screen. Our audience was growing, our reputation was spreading, and we had only begun to experience the competition that was emerging from the mainstreaming of LGBT movies and television programs and the easy access of Netflix. In 1998, for example, we gave the Southeastern premiere of Gods and Monsters. That would never happen today. Shortbus, yes. Brokeback Mountain? No way.

(My personal involvement in the festival before 1999 was mainly as an enthusiastic ticket-buyer, although I was good friends with some of its early leaders.)

So the festival was a success. But the non-profit 501(c)3 organization that produced it was struggling to keep a lot of other balls in the air. Tampa Bay Arts, as that organization was called, was a well-intentioned umbrella organization that had taken responsibility for the Tampa Bay Gay Men's Chorus and several other activities. It had hoped to provide a full-range of performing arts programs in the local LGBT community. A few years before, the Gay Men's Chorus (led by Mark Puig) had brought an international gay and lesbian choral convention to Tampa. At that time, it was the largest convention that had ever come to Tampa. (A good many political obstacles had to be overcome. National LGBT groups had called for a boycott of Tampa because voters had repealed our human rights ordinance in 1992. The local Human Rights Task Force — Nadine Smith, Todd Simmons, Amy Mandel and others — countered with an innovative idea called a "Buycott." They signed up businesses, including the Tampa-Hillsborough Convention and Visitors Bureau, as well as other local and national corporations, that had non-discrimination clauses for gays and lesbians in their corporate policies. The Buycott encouraged LGBT people and their allies to patronize those businesses, including the convention center, the performing arts center and the hotels that served them. The choral convention came, as planned, during the week of Tampa's LGBT Pride Parade.

I still remember some local television coverage of that year's parade, which included the Los Angeles gay men's chorus singing "We Shall Overcome," in exquisite four-part-harmony, just outside the new Tampa Convention Center. Their audience was a small group of robed and partially hooded Ku Klux Klansmen, who watched and listened in stony silence. A few moments later, Mayor Dick Greco welcomed the parade and the choruses inside the convention center. It was a sea-change for Tampa!

Anyway, the gay men's chorus and Tampa Bay Arts were emboldened by that success. They launched a series of money-losing adventures — circuit parties, unsuccessful musical events etc. The film festival, which they considered a fundraiser rather than a free-standing event, was their only project that had a positive cash flow. But that money was used to bail out the other projects — not to re-invest in the film festival. Often it was hard for the festival to get its bills paid. For several years, there was no seed money to pay for start-up expenses — such as the festival director's part-time salary. In short, many festival volunteers felt that the festival's health and growth were being squeezed by the problems of its parent organization.

Tampa Bay Arts also had a $50,000 debt. The private lender was trying to collect it. TBA board members were discussing bankruptcy to forestall the collection. If we raised new donations for the film festival — as we had begun to do — we feared that any new money would just be sucked into that debt, which had nothing to do with the film festival. So our group of eight or nine volunteers, who were already doing most of the programming, planning, sponsorship solicitations, marketing and administrative work anyway, started our own non-profit organization to produce the 2000 film festival.

The goal of Friends of the Festival Inc. was to rescue the festival from its financial crisis and to put it on firm footing for the future, with all revenues being reinvested in the film festival. As the Friends' first president, I had to put up $30,000 of my own money, so that we could have cash to pay bills before sponsorship revenues and ticket sales started coming in. But I was also so energized by the project that I ended up retiring in June from my 24-year career at the St. Petersburg Times to devote full (unpaid) time to that year's festival. I ended up getting most of my loan back over the next several years, except for several thousand dollars I wrote off in annual contributions. (Oh, those were the days when I could afford to live large!)

As with any transition, things got testy between Tampa Bay Arts and Friends of the Festival. That first year, while we waited for our own 501(c)3 approval from the IRS, we had to operate under Tampa Bay Arts' supervision. They handled our official books, while we maintained our own bank account. Sponsors took sides. Some withdrew their support from the new group. (An owner of the Suncoast Resort even threatened to sue us to stop the 2000 festival, because we had not included a full-age ad for the resort in our program book. He hadn't given us any money. But he had given Tampa Bay Arts free office space. Somehow TBA's executive director had neglected to tell the resort that Friends of the Festival was now selling and collecting all sponsorships; he also neglected to tell us that the resort expected to be in the program book. The owner dropped his threat after I suggested that any good will he had hoped to gain by sponsoring the festival would certainly be erased if he sued to shut it down a few weeks before Opening Night.)

Still, it's easy to understand why Tampa Bay Arts did not want to let its most successful program go.

Finally, after two years of argument and negotiation, we worked things out amicably. Friends of the Festival, now operating under its own 501(c)3, took full control of the film festival, its trademarks, its revenues, its future. We absolved Tampa Bay Arts from any prior claims or debts. The film festival was finally on its own, fully in charge of its own destiny.

I believe the growth and artistic progress we've seen since then was made possible by that forward-looking push for independence.

I ended my tenure as board president with nothing but respect for my predecessors at Tampa Bay Arts. They were honorable, hardworking volunteers, sincerely trying to do their best to serve multiple constituencies beyond the film festival. They had simply experienced some bad luck in their other ventures. Thankfully, they loved the film festival so much that they let it go. (Tampa Bay Arts ceased operation not long after that.)

I especially admired Bob Pope, a now-retired St. Petersburg lawyer who was the board president of Tampa Bay Arts during these tumultuous years. Bob has been involved in just about every public-spirited, non-profit LGBT organization in our local community over the past 30 years. He's still very active as a leader in the Metropolitan Community Church of St. Petersburg, and on the board of Metropolitan Charities, which gave him a well-deserved Lifetime Community Leadership Award last year.

MY FAVORITE FILM FROM THE FIRST 20 YEARS

I've been hoping someone would ask me this, since, to me, it exemplifies the exquisite balance that has helped the festival be both a popular and artistic success.

In 2001 or 2002 (I can't locate those program books) we had the opportunity to present an unusual film called Claire.

It was a black-and-white silent movie, filmed with an antique hand-cranked camera so that it really looked like the old silent films. The story was based on an old Japanese fairy tale about an elderly childless couple who find a moon-child in a bamboo stalk and raise her as their own. In this version, imagined and made by Atlanta filmmaker Milford Thomas, it was an elderly male couple (gray beards and all) in the 1920s rural American South. To make the film even more unique, it had its own original score, written for a classical chamber orchestra.

Claire had been presented a few times before, but no one had yet been willing to pay the cost of a live orchestra. We decided we should do it. We hired a portion of the Florida Orchestra.

We gave the world premiere of this beautiful film as it was intended to be shown. It was a gloriously haunting experience. The characters, the fairy tale, the antique setting, the grainy film, the music — all these combined to carry the audience into a completely different world, as the best films will do. I still get goosebumps remembering it.Not so many people saw Claire, of course, as those who showed up for the more conventional "boy meets boy" and "girl meets girl" comedies that year. In fact, that one night's screening of Claire cost us between $4,000 and $5,000 — way more than our box office receipts for the night. But we ended the year in the black, anyway, because of our balanced programming and the popularity and community support of the festival as a whole.

Most importantly, we gave our Tampa Bay audience a unique, magical experience that night — and made a strong statement to the national and international filmmaking community about how seriously we take their most inventive and experimental work.

And by the way, the Festival Director who brought us Claire was Margaret Murray, who has returned as the program director for this year's festival.

WHAT I LOVE BEST ABOUT THE FILM FESTIVAL

Besides the films themselves, it's the social experience. Every year, the festival is like one big family reunion. There are some people I see only once a year — but I see them at the film festival. And I see them every year. I have conversations with them between films. We become friends. We catch up when we see each other again, and we talk about real things in our lives.

I cherish that.

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