The bad blood keeps flowing over the Seattle International Film Festival's taking sponsorship money from the giant Blockbuster chain and allegedly spurning independent local video



The bad blood keeps flowing over the Seattle International Film Festival's taking sponsorship money from the giant Blockbuster chain and allegedly spurning independent local video stores. The wound opened for all to see on opening night, when Island Video (which feels particularly threatened by Blockbuster's expansion) stationed picketers brandishing overwrought flyers headlined, "Boycott SIFF?" The bulk of the flyer, and of the independents' anxieties, focuses on what they see as Blockbuster's drive to conquer the world with predatory pricing, bulk-purchasing leverage, and white-bread selection (nothing gay, nothing NC-17, change this and we'll carry your film). Dallas-based Blockbuster has more than 4,000 US stores and plans to add 700 this year; the independents claim it helped drive 4,000 of their ilk out of business last year.

And the film festival is caught in the middle of this Microsoftian struggle. "Blockbuster saved our ass this year," says festival director Darryl MacDonald. "At the last minute," after a city grant and $40,000 sponsorship fell through, SIFF appealed to the Evil Empire. Blockbuster gave $50,000. But it wanted to be SIFF's only video-store sponsor, the same exclusivity it's had at the Austin, Fort Lauderdale, and (yes!) Sundance festivals. "That's standard for cash sponsors," says MacDonald.

What about us? hollered Scarecrow Video, the town's premium rental archive and a longtime festival stalwart, and the four independents who buy and market together as "Seattle's Best Video Stores." SIFF appealed to Blockbuster on behalf of its "ongoing relationship" with Scarecrow, and Blockbuster consented to Scarecrow's sponsoring a screening for $1,000, as it has each year. ("SIFF is the only good exposure we get," says Scarecrow partner Carl Tostevin.) But the SBVS four—Island, Video Isle, Rain City, and Reckless Video—were still shut out. Island Video owner Tom Hastings says they felt "betrayed" by SIFF and Scarecrow. They claim to have supported the festival with a total of $15,000 in past years. But most of that was the supposed value of the stores' special displays of videos of SIFF films, which probably boosted their rentals more than SIFF's ticket sales. One SBVS store gave a small sponsorship in 1997, but the four didn't even buy any program ads last year; Hastings says their ads were mishandled the year before.

But Hastings says the SBVS's distributor was ready to put up "$7,000 to $10,000" to advertise at the festival and co-promote it elsewhere. And he says his manager called SIFF three times in three months, but never got a call back. "No one got calls from them," MacDonald insists. "We encouraged them to advertise in our catalog. They demurred."

Hastings says he'd gladly share festival exposure with Blockbuster, if it would relinquish exclusivity (unlikely) and if MacDonald would apologize. But MacDonald still fumes: "This proprietary attitude on the part of SBVS should give a shudder. This kind of campaign could sour Blockbuster on this festival. It could sour any number of other companies on sponsoring nonprofit events."

What, us sour? "We have totally enjoyed our relationship with the Seattle International Film Festival," says Blockbuster vice president Karen Raskopf. "We'll look at doing it again next year. Aligning with the film festival makes sense this year. We really have made a push to get more independent films in our stores."

So far, Blockbuster's idea of "independent" leans heavily on Showtime releases. But if the video independents' nemesis switches from a Crown Books to a Barnes & Noble strategy, they'll have a lot more to worry about than who gets their names up at the festival.

A stakeholder through their hearts

Here's a run-up to the World Trade Organization Conference descending on this city in November—and to the fights that will doubtless flare over who gets in and who gets heard at it. On June 3, the University of Washington's Global Trade, Transportation, and Logistics Studies program holds its annual conference, on the theme "The WTO and Global Commerce in the Pacific Northwest." Its press release promises "presentations by various stakeholders in the region" and a look at the question "What is the likely impact of the WTO on 'free-trade', 'fair-trade', and 'managed-trade' in the future?" But the "various stakeholders" all happen to be high-powered executives from companies with evident interests in free trade: Boeing, Microsoft, Weyerhaeuser, Frank Russell, Cargill, and the Greenbrier companies. Plus Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, that celebrated labor and human rights advocate, as keynoter.

So who will speak for "fair trade"? Jim Puckett of the Asia Pacific Environmental Exchange asked the UW. Jess Browning, director of the Global Studies program, replied that the addition of Congressman Jim McDermott, a free-trade Clintonite with strong labor ties, "should provide a nice balance to the program." Browning calls it "unfortunate" that fair-trade advocates "pick a program like ours to try to weasel into to get a platform to express their views." And, he says, they miss the point: The conference isn't really a forum on trade issues. Rather, it's a chance for global-trade students to show the work they've been doing and "network" with potential employers. "The panel is just [set up] to get people there who are in industry."

In other words, when they say "stakeholder," they mean "boss."

Out of the loop

Another pesky question for the World Trade megameeting in November is being raised by fair-trade advocates and the Seattle City Council: The US trade representative is holding public hearings in five cities on these trade negotiations. Why isn't Seattle, where the meeting is being held, among them?

Related Links:

Program for the UW trade conference >>

A collection of articles on UW/WTO matters >>

The GTTL program's website >>

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