Actor Maggie Cheung's appearance at this year's festival was pivotal in sparking interest and ticket sales.

HIFF scores financial
blockbuster with its 24th
annual event

What a difference five years has meant to the Hawaii International Film Festival.

After its board of directors fired its executive director in 2000, the organization became mired in bad publicity with infighting among its board of directors, cutbacks on government funding, low staff morale and debt of at least $100,000.

Longtime festival supporters wondered if HIFF would survive the turmoil. That was answered with a resounding "yes" with the just-completed 24th annual event.

"If you judge the quality of (HIFF) films by the number of people who see them, then this year's festival was the most successful we've ever had," said Jeff Portnoy, HIFF's board chairman for five years.

Although final numbers are still being tallied, Portnoy and HIFF Executive Director Chuck Boller said ticket revenues this year will "easily" exceed $100,000. Attendance for the event's 165 films also set a record.

"Attendance will be in the tens of thousands, and revenues will put us well in the black," Boller said.

For the first time in at least five years, HIFF will be able to retire as much as $90,000 in lingering debt, so, heading into its quarter-century anniversary next year, the organization will be out of the red.

HIFF operated this year under a drastically reduced budget -- $520,000, from about $680,000 -- to help pay off other significant debts, largely by getting some corporations to turn their loans into contributions, Portnoy said.

The budget cuts were necessary, Boller and Portnoy agreed, to clear up long-standing debt from earlier festivals that at one time amounted to about $250,000.

Several factors contributed to HIFF's success this year: quality of films, early "buzz" and the attendance of actress Maggie Cheung.

"The media coverage was extraordinary this year, and having Maggie Cheung was very important to Hawaii," Boller said. "HIFF seminars were more diverse in subject matter and demographics because of subjects ranging from marketing films for independent filmmakers to making a surfing film."

For the first time there was an extensive student film component, thanks largely to the University of Hawaii's Academy of Creative Media.

"That brought in a lot of people who might not have attended," Portnoy said.

Throughout the planning stages, HIFF executives and the board kept a tight grip on the budget. This included reducing HIFF's full-time paid staff to four from six, then dividing the duties of several part-time positions among full-time staff or volunteers.

"We also cut back significantly on the amount of guests the organization sponsored with airline fares, meals and rooms," Boller said.

For the first time, HIFF met its cash goal, about $120,000, for corporate contributions for special event and film section sponsoring, Portnoy said.

A major factor in HIFF's renewed financial credibility is due to what Portnoy calls "angels," those corporations who make large cash donations that account this year for nearly half of the festival's budget.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority has provided $100,000 annually for three years and is expected to renew its contract; Commercial Data System provides $50,000 cash in addition to computer and system software assistance; and Louis Vuitton, the festival's title sponsor for three years, has made a $100,000 annual donation. The luxury company is expected to announce a longer contract with HIFF and a larger contribution within the next few weeks, sources said. Boller and Portnoy declined comment.

With financial support from as many as 10 new sponsors this year and continuing contributions from "angels" including First Hawaiian Bank, Boller and Portnoy are optimistic that the festival's budget can be restored and staffing increased.

Portnoy will step down as board president to head the committee organizing next year's 25th HIFF anniversary. KBFD-TV General Manager Jeff Chung will take his place.

"Artistically, HIFF has always been a very good festival, but now there has been significant improvement in the business of running the festival," Portnoy said. "We're looking very good."

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