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

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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.

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