RIP DedFest? Edmonton film festival considering a move

After nearly a decade of operation, the organizers behind DedFest, Edmonton's leading alternative film festival, are pondering the event's demise.

The independent festival has brought action, horror, sci-fi, cult classics, and new independent films to Metro Cinema for the past nine years, but it may be finished with Edmonton.

"I've decided that this is my last year doing it," said festival founder and executive director Derek Clayton, who is proposing the festival move to the West Coast.

'It's an uphill battle'

"I would like to see it grow and I'm not seeing too many opportunities to see it grow, necessarily in this city."

Clayton is frustrated with what he describes as "stagnant funding" and a chronic lack of support for Edmonton's burgeoning film industry. DedFest has received approximately $5,000 in city arts grants annually over the past four years, but it isn't enough, said Clayton.

The 2016 festival, held in October, operated on an overall budget of about $47,000. Even after film submission fees and beer sales, the event only broke even, Clayton said.

Ultimately the future of the festival rests with the board of directors but according to Clayton, without a huge funding boost, the future looks grim.

"It's an uphill battle," he said. "About 90 per cent of my job is putting in grants.

"You don't have enough time at the end of your day to actually run your event. It's spent meeting with city councillors, trying to figure how you can access more funding, and it just gets frustrating."

'We're not viewed as an artistic event'

The festival, which will be entering its tenth year in 2017, usually draws between 3,500 and 4,000 patrons to more than a dozen screenings over six days. Despite a loyal fan base, the festival has struggled to earn support.

This year, organizers launched an appeal after an Edmonton Arts Council jury suggested the 2018 festival might be provided less funding than the year before, said Clayton. DEDfest received a $5,000 grant for the 2017 festival season, bit it's still less than the $6,667 they were asking for, he said.

Clayton said the Edmonton Arts Council funding model tends to favour large, well-established events, leaving smaller organizations — especially those in the film sector —  to "pick over the scraps."

"I think a lot of it has to do with just how the funding here is primarily peer-based," Clayton said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"The peer system jurors and board members are taking it upon themselves, not to reflect Edmonton's arts community, but to try to shape it, and I don't think that's right.

"When you've got a name like DedFest and you've got a reputation for playing basement horror movies, I think funders have blinders on when it comes to us ... We're not viewed as an artistic event."

'The dollars have not increased'

Last year, the arts council had about $1.6 million to divvy up between 39 festivals. The funding is granted by a carefully selected committee of jurors, said Stephen Williams, the arts council's director of grants, awards and support programs.

He said the council does its best to maintain stable funding for festivals which are performing well.

"It's a balancing point," said Williams. "Finding folks that have skills and knowledge and real understanding of how to run a festival, means that you're really drawing people from that community."

According to a city mandate dating back to 2008, festivals selected for city funding should be provided approximately 12 per cent of their operational budgets. But hitting that benchmark has become more difficult in recent years, Williams said.

"The dollars have not increased recently, but the community does continue to grow, both each individual festival on their own, and there are more festivals now, so we are below those targets," he said.

"Last year, that number was regrettably lower that nine per cent. So on average, every festival is receiving only nine cents out of every dollar that they need to spend from the city … but that is something the jury does look at."

After so many years in Edmonton, Clayton is hopeful his festival can be brought back to life, but has little hope that will happen if the city doesn't start investing more seriously in the film sector.

"Funding is key," he said. "We need an attitude change."