Annual festivals draw crowds to Midcoast
Camden — An array of Camden businesses reported an upswing during the weekend of Sept. 27 to 30. The reported spike in business coincided with the 8th annual Camden International Film Festival and the fourth annual Vinfest, an extravaganza at Cellardoor Winery in Lincolnville. Both events draw local interest and guests from out of town.
Phil McElhaney owns the bustling downtown Camden coffee shop and eatery Boynton McKay Food Co. He said business during the last weekend in September was "cranking." McElhaney said he has been tracking his numbers and approximates that he served an additional 100 meals Saturday, Sept. 29.
"It's probably one of the busiest weekends of the year," he added, noting that his establishment was busy from breakfast, "straight up until 5 p.m.," when Boynton McKay shuts the doors for the day.
Camden Development Director Brian Hodges said the fall season has been "phenomenal" as a whole for Camden businesses. He noted events like CIFF, sponsored by the likes of Vimeo, Maine Magazine/ Maine Home and Design, Dowling Walsh Gallery, Megunticook Market, Cellardoor Winery, Portland Press Herald and University of Maine, are positive for the town of Camden.
"Business is just incredible right now — there was definitely an uptick with the festival," he explained. "Events like [CIFF] make that high level [of business] even higher."
Hodges said the development office provided a sponsorship out of their designated annual budget and he arranged for CIFF Director of Operations Alissa Morris and Founder/ Director Ben Fowlie to present to CEDAC on Aug. 27.
"This is an important relationship to cultivate," Hodges noted.
Bill Hahn is the co-owner and general manager of The Country Inn and The Cedar Crest Inn, both in Camden. He's been in the lodging business for more than a decade and said his business partner, Bob Liberty, also owns the Tradewinds in Rockland — another establishment that boasted no vacancies during the final weekend of September. What CIFF brings to Hahn's establishments is, "well, people," he explained with a wry chuckle.
"My basic premise is that any event like [CIFF] is good for the community as a whole," he said.
He recalled the inaugural CIFF, when he first met Fowlie and agreed to get involved.
"When Ben first came to me eight years ago my first impression was that he could pull it off, he seemed to know what he was doing and he had a lot of heart," Hahn explained, noting that he had never met Fowlie prior to being approached about CIFF.
"My business is directly effected by [CIFF] but it's good for everybody," Hahn said of the community.
"He seemed to have the whole concept nailed down, even then," Hahn noted, he said he thought the concept of screening exclusively documentary film was sound as well.
"He was showing documentaries, I thought that was a good thing," he noted that documentary film provides an avenue for "ideas, concerns, and [filmmakers] who see something that they want to present."
"The topics, and film making, are important for conversation and life in general," Hahn added.
While his support of CIFF has endured — and his prediction about the festival's success proved correct — Hahn said it's difficult to gauge exactly how much business is impacted by CIFF and other fall events. He said he donates several rooms each year and stays in touch with Fowlie to assist in facilitating lodging. Earlier in September, Fowlie said Hahn called him when a block of rooms unexpectedly opened up at one of his inns.
Hahn said he's not sure what percentage of his guests were in town for CIFF and Vinfest, but he noted that those rooms were booked in short order.
"I think it's the best September we've ever had," Hahn said, noting that the month has been increasingly busy in recent years. He attributes the uptick to a number of factors including local, destination events.
Fowlie said local lodging partners include a number of Camden hotels and inns, The Riverhouse, Hawthorne Inn, Whitehall Inn and Inn at Ocean's Edge among them. Some guests opted to head north to stay at Point Lookout Resort where Fowlie said a group from Brooklyn rented cabins for the weekend.
"We love knowing that there are groups of people securing bulk group rates," he noted, explaining that a group of about 30 New Yorkers spent the weekend at Point Lookout Resort. The group — Union Docs Collective — illustrates an opportunity, said Fowlie. He envisions the continued cultivation of diverse partnerships between small arts organizations and collectives around the country who gather around events like CIFF. He said the same goes for a "burgeoning scene" he's noticed in Boston.
"They embrace the festival as an event that's not in Boston, but it feels like their event," he said of the Boston contingency. "They're loyal, they come year, after year, after year."
Fowlie noted that he and Points North Director Sean Flynn — with whom Fowlie worked closely in Boston — were giving a presentation in mid-September, pitching CIFF as a worthwhile weekend excursion just a few hours from the city. As they spoke an audience member interjected, letting others know that hotel rooms in Camden were getting scarce.
It's surreal moments like that when Fowlie said he notes "an extension of followers," he realizes that CIFF has grown up, his nurturing — and that of the community — has paid off in a tangible way.
"It's a much larger audience, engaged, they stay the same places every year, they get comfortable," Fowlie explained of the CIFF fan base.
Fowlie said hoteliers are gracious and accommodating, often providing discounted rates and a handful of donated rooms on an annual basis. Rooms were getting scarce by mid-September and were in such short supply by festival weekend that he said some attendees opted to embrace weekend-tripping Maine-style, camping out despite inclement weather.
A graduate of Emerson College, Fowlie resides outside of Boston when he's not traveling the festival circuit. He has been instrumental in the implementation of the popular DocYard screening series in Cambridge and serves as a jury member and panelist at some of the documentary film festivals that have reached dinner-table status among industry and film buffs alike. Silverdocs in Silver Spring, Md., True/False in Columbia, Mo., and South-By-Southwest in Austin, Texas, are among the Camden native's annual haunts. Still, Fowlie, 31, hasn't forgotten his roots, among the evidence is a black-inked outline of the jagged, yet unmistakable state of Maine tattooed just above his heart.
CIFF kicked-off Thursday, Sept. 26, with a sold-out screening of the Maine-made film "Betting the Farm" at Camden Opera House. The film, produced and directed by Jason Mann and Cecily Pingree, focuses on a group of nine Maine dairy farmers dropped by their national milk processor. Faced with losing their farms, the farmers band together to start their own milk company, Maine's Own Organic Milk (MOO Milk) and realize success against tremendous odds. The CIFF screening was the Maine premiere of the film and attracted a crowd that encircled the block more than an hour before the 7:30 p.m. start of the film. Realizing the dilemma, CIFF organizers orchestrated a second, overflow screening at the nearby Bay View Street Cinema. moviegoers filled nearly three-quarters of the seats there, said Fowlie.
The banner crowd on opening night marked a pair of firsts for CIFF: a sell-out screening at Camden Opera House, and a completely sold out opening night film. Fowlie said he had been eying the film since seeing it at another festival, having worked with the duo of filmmakers before he encouraged them to consider a home-state premiere at CIFF before touring the state for various screenings and promotion.
"To premiere a film with such local ties, it was a real honor for me to be able to do that," Fowlie said. He estimates 650 people attended the screening of Betting the Farm and said the film received the "longest standing ovation we've ever had at CIFF."
Camden Opera House Director Kerry Hadley has worked with Fowlie since the inaugural festival. She said CIFF is an example of the type of events that the opera house staff has been working to attract. She said annual revenue has exceeded projections by "10 to 15 percent" for the last decade.
"We're challenged by the growth, but it's all good," she said, "it's a super event."
Hadley said CIFF used the "PopTech model," taking advantage of every available space in the opera house for forums, receptions and screenings. She explained that non-profit groups receive a deeply discounted rate for use of the facilities.
"It's important for the community to recognize the value of these events, and the importance of supporting start up events," she noted. She explained that her organization is constantly growing and working on innovative ways to draw in conferences and events to Camden.
"I think we're doing some of the most important work that can be done," she said, "[CIFF] is wonderful to watch and be a part of."
CIFF screened 70 films during the course of the following three days. Screening venues included Camden's Bay View Street Cinema, The Strand Cinema in Rockland, and The Farnsworth Museum. Other events under the CIFF umbrella included the Points North Documentary Film Forum and a number of special events and parties.
The packed-house on opening night was no anomaly, Fowlie said organizers had to turn away around 30 people from two of three "shorts" screenings, both held at 10 a.m. in Camden. Both "secret" screenings were sold out — one to pass holders alone, and two shows at the Farnsworth sold out. Fowlie said the 350-seat Strand was near capacity for all programming on Friday night. The 219-seat Bay View Street Cinema sold out two Saturday afternoon screenings as well. Fowlie said venues reached at least 75 percent capacity for screenings throughout the weekend.
"This was by far the busiest year so far and after the success, we are, definitely looking to add another venue for our night screenings. The screenings during the day at the Bay View did extremely well and the screenings at The Strand at night were nearly all sold out," said Fowlie via email.
Fowlie said CIFF saw a 33 percent increase in the sale of both VIP and Festival Passes, at $150 and $75 respectively, the VIP pass grants admission to all events while the Festival Pass holders may attend any and all films and forums associated with CIFF, forgoing the parties.
Fowlie was quick to note that pass sales — as a whole — increased around 200 percent in 2011, but pass prices, he said, were lower then in previous years. They've since rebounded with no sign of dwindling attendance.
"We've seen a massive explosion in pass sales, the past two years we've seen incredible growth," he noted.
Fowlie shares the weekend with another lauded local event, he noted. It's Vinfest, which is hosted annually at Cellardoor Winery in Lincolnville.
Cellardoor's owner, Bettina Doulton — who purchased the 68-acre winery in 2007 — has been a tremendous support, Fowlie noted. He said Doulton took the opera house stage on opening night to help welcome CIFF 2012. Additionally, he noted, Cellardoor is a tenured sponsor of CIFF, going above and beyond their premiere sponsorship and generous wine donations. Doulton has opened her Lincolnville vineyard for two outdoor screenings — utilizing staging erected for Vinfest — in the Europe-meets-Maine vineyard setting. Both screenings memorably rendered throngs of beleaguered, weary festival goers awestruck as closing night film commenced against an autumn chill, under a mural of star speckled Maine sky.
"I loved working with [Doulton] opening night," Fowlie said, "we make it work, being on the same weekend, I tell people 'go check out Vinfest, come back and see a film,'" he explained."I love the pairing of the two [events], it's really a great fall celebration of Maine."
Doulton echoed that sentiment.
"It's really fun that it's all the same weekend," she said. Noting that having Vinfest and CIFF as companion events provides a vehicle to highlight Midcoast Maine as a "really wonderful destination."
Doulton explained that Friday, Sept. 28, Cellardoor held a dinner and after party at the vineyard — four renowned chefs including Michael Salmon of The Hartstone Inn, Melissa Kelly of Primo, David Turin of David's and Geoffroy Deconinck of Natalie's all worked in separate kitchen spaces to prepare respective courses for a 210 guest, sit-down dinner at the cost of $125 per person. Doulton said the teamwork among the chefs was remarkable.
An additional 180 attendees joined the festivities after dinner, purchasing tickets for dessert and dancing to the likes of acts including Jesse Campbell and The Commodores, she added. On Saturday the tent, appointed with all the trappings of an old-Hollywood affair — including Liberace's piano — had been transformed.
Doulton explained that barbecue — and wine tastings — were among the epicurean attractions, and an array of family friendly activities inviting the public to partake in the festivities, tickets cost $10.
She explained that Vinfest 2013 tickets are slated to go on sale in November, in trademark fashion a special musical guest has already been booked.
"There were lots of rich experiences, people were going to see movies and then coming grape stomping," she explained. While Doulton said she is aware of numerous groups and individuals who make Midcoast — and Vinfest — a destination, she said she hasn't experienced any lodging conflict with guests vying for rooms during the busy weekend.
"There are lots of really nice places to stay, we haven't had anyone call to say they can't get rooms," she said. Both Fowlie and Doulton said guests at their respective events are staying from Rockland to Belfast, adding a range of opportunities for commerce and extended Midcoast experiences.
Fowlie said he was happy to see Camden town officials including Town Manager Patricia Finnigan and Development Director Brian Hodges at multiple events. He said town officials were accommodating in allowing CIFF to use both the Washington Street Conference Room — where they held forums — and an additional office space in the highly-visible municipal building on Elm Street as the CIFF hub. He noted Camden Opera House Manager Kerry Hadley was equally integral to operations. Fowlie said he observed a lot of sponsors in attendance that were there on behalf of businesses, individual sponsors often attend, he said, but representative business sponsors were a welcome addition.
"When someone supports you it's nice to see that they're engaged in what they're actually supporting," he said. "They were really enjoying themselves."
Fowlie said CIFF will maintain a year-round office in the Knox Mill, having rented the space last spring. 2012 marks the first year that CIFF will have a year-round office in Camden, following in the footsteps of established conferences including Pop!Tech. He said screenings additional to the annual festival are in the works around Maine, and CIFF will employ two or three year-round employees.
Fowlie was quick to note that a primarily local, engaged board and a fundamental team is responsible for much of the enduring success of CIFF.
"We have a core group that has really kept us going over the years," he said.
Courier Publications reporter Jenna Lookner can be reached at 236-8511 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.