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Originally published Monday, June 16, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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A look back at SIFF: A toast — after paying for the drink

The bottom line on Seattle International Film Festival 2008? Fewer galas, no Eastside venue, no free drinks on opening night. But still, a lot of paying customers.

Seattle Times movie critic

The Seattle International Film Festival, which concluded Sunday after more than 400 feature-length and short films, went through some changes this year. There were three galas, rather than the usual six. Closing night was on Saturday, rather than Sunday. All the short films were grouped together on one weekend. Online streaming of short films kept the festival going 24/7. And, in a change that seemed to rock the very foundations of some SIFF-goers, there were no free drinks at the opening-night gala.

While many of those changes were positive, that last one wasn't — and wasn't entirely intentional. SIFF managing director Deborah Person explained, "We were going to have complimentary champagne cocktails throughout the night, and unfortunately that didn't happen for a number of logistical reasons." She noted that the festival is trying to find the balance between "being very hospitable and sustaining ourselves."

The lavish opening-night party has long been a vastly expensive undertaking; despite sponsorships and rising ticket prices, according to Person, it has never paid for itself. SIFF took a more moderate approach for other galas this year, offering two drink tickets with each admission — a decision that's "a little more responsible," said artistic director Carl Spence.

Both Spence and Person said the faltering economy presented special challenges this year, with several expected large sponsorships dropping out months before the festival. However, they were pleased to see a sizable increase in individual donations, such as platinum lifetime memberships. And, during the festival, a year-round sponsor for SIFF Cinema signed on: the French cable channel TV5 Monde.

Ticket sales were "holding steady," said Spence, speaking before the festival's usually busy final weekend (in which Cinerama joined the regular venues). They won't surpass last year's ticket sales but didn't expect to, considering the economy and having one fewer venue this year.

"We're very gratified that audiences are still coming," said Person. Individual ticket prices and pass prices rose, but the number of passholders remained level, with Person noting a surprising increase in SIFF-goers purchasing the most pricey (and most benefit-loaded) level of pass.

In other changes, Spence pointed to an increase in online initiatives this year (a film competition called MyFestival, podcast interviews, a featured "short of the day") and an expansion of the festival's FutureWave program for young people.

And he and Person spoke of one development they regretted: no Eastside venue this year. Lincoln Square Cinema in Bellevue had been among the venues for the previous two years, but festival organizers were unable to book it (or, despite efforts, any other Eastside screen) for 2008. "We will definitely look at getting that back for next year," said Person.

And, at the end of a long festival, both spoke of the moments they'll remember long after the popcorn is swept away. Person talked about meeting Ben Kingsley, at the special tribute to the actor held early in the festival. "He was a wonderful, wonderful guest — very gracious," she said. "I think he's a wonderful actor and he spoke very eloquently about his craft." She also mentioned the fun of a local film making its debut, Deirdre Timmons' burlesque documentary "A Wink and a Smile," whose raucous premiere at the Egyptian featured live burlesque performances and a packed house.

Spence said he especially enjoyed interviewing John Waters ("pretty hilarious and jaw-dropping and unexpected") and attending the lively gala for "The Great Buck Howard." But he also remembered a quieter moment: watching the Hong Kong film "The Drummer," about a Zen drumming troupe that transforms the life of a gangster.

"The filmmaker Kenneth Bi actually was inspired to make the film after seeing this amazing drum troupe. He created a story around them, basically a gangster story. It was quite moving. Having him here and the audience response — I just thought, this is why I really enjoy doing this. It was magical."

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725

or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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