Thirty years ago, the Cleveland International Film Festival experienced a major turning point when its board voted to move its screenings from the east side’s Cedar Lee Theatre in Cleveland Heights – where it had resided for the festival’s first 14 years – to downtown as part of the Cleveland and Tower City renaissance.
“Being more centrally located, having larger venues at our disposal and meeting the demand for more morning and late-night screenings helped change our fortunes,” recalled CIFF associate director Patrick Shepherd.
Last year’s festival at the Cleveland Cinemas multiplex at Tower City Center offered 600 screenings of 211 feature films and 237 shorts from 71 countries, which attracted 105,839 attendees.
Change is once again on the horizon with the recent announcement that, for next year and for the foreseeable future, the festival will travel 14 blocks east to Playhouse Square.
There, films will be screened at the 500-seat Allen Theatre, 1,000-seat Mimi Ohio Theatre, 2,800-seat Connor Palace and 3,200-seat KeyBank State Theatre. It is also likely a few of the smaller venues in the Playhouse Square complex will be in play.
“It will be thrilling for us to create a different audience experience, from intimate to grand, as we honor Playhouse Square’s past,” said CIFF Executive Director Marcie Goodman in reference to the theaters’ history as cinematic showcases when they opened nearly 100 years ago. “The time is right for us to make the move.”
Timing has plenty to do with the CIFF’s inability to get Tower City owner Bedrock LLC, which bought The Avenue at Tower City from Forest City in 2016, to commit to more than a year-to-year contract renewal. It is moving forward on transforming the 350,000-square-foot space into an entrepreneurship center and hub for new technology firms.
“For years, we have explored various possibilities, most of which would have forced us to spread out like most of the film festivals around the world,” Goodman said. “Last year, I was just having lunch with (Playhouse Square President and CEO) Gina Vernaci and she said, ‘What about Playhouse Square?’ The idea was so well received by the CIFF board,” which voted unanimously on the move.
“We heartily welcome CIFF to our family of resident companies,” said Vernaci in a recent news release, adding the festival “brings the world to Cleveland.”
It has also brought the world to Cleveland Heights, University Circle and the Gordon Square Arts District, where the CIFF has used local movie theaters for satellite screenings and special events. For each of the past five years, according to CIFF marketing and media director Debby Samples, the 12-day event has generated more than $5 million for the city of Cleveland and brought an additional $2 million in food, beverage and retail purchases to the other locales.
“It is unclear whether plans will continue to include theaters outside of Playhouse Square,” said Jon Forman, president of Cleveland Cinemas, of which Tower City Cinemas, Cedar Lee Theatre and four other movie theaters in Northeast Ohio are a part.
Let’s hope they do.
“When you get 100,000-some people (to attend a filmfest),” said Alan Glazen, whose restaurant XYZ the Tavern is catty-corner to a CIFF satellite venue in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood on the west side – “you’re automatically impacting every business there.”
Smaller film festivals have a similar effect. The Chagrin Documentary Film Festival is not nearly as prominent nor as populated as the CIFF. Still, the economic impact of last October’s five-day event on its early-19th century host Village of Chagrin Falls and on the surrounding communities where films were also shown was calculated at $1.2 million, as 70% of the 13,200 in attendance shopped or dined locally.
But the impact of a film fest on a community is more than economic.
“Our hope is that visitors not only enjoy a fantastic film festival, but that they fall in love with the Chagrin Valley, return year after year, and tell others to visit as well,” said Molly Gebler, executive director of the Chagrin Valley Chamber of Commerce.
The Mandel JCC Cleveland Jewish FilmFest celebrated its b’nai mitzvah last year. “In addition to it bringing business to Beachwood," said Deborah Bobrow, the JCC’s Arts & Culture director, “our films enlighten audiences about the local and world-wide Jewish experience and about Israel.”
Filmfests can add to a small town’s image through mainstream media coverage and social media exposure and foster community pride. And even if their theaters serve as satellite venues for large inner-city festivals, small businesses and local residents are given an opportunity to engage in an event that showcases the best that film and their towns have to offer.
It would be unfortunate if the future footprint of the CIFF did not extend beyond Playhouse Square. “We have a lot on our plate right now,” says Goodman, as she prepares for this year’s CIFF opening on March 25. “But this is not off the table.”