Putting together a functioning festival is only half the job. The festivals that really stand out attract the most attention and best talent—and are the most successfully branded. In the Fargo Film Festival’s case, this job falls to Fargo Theatre Executive Director Margie Bailly.
Before spearheading the initial organization of the Fargo Film Festival, Bailly had cut her teeth on the kinds of branding projects that require more unique concepts and creative planning than heavy spending.
“As development director for the Center for Parents and Children I branded prevention programming and a toy fair fundraiser around the slogan ‘the uphill struggle against child abuse and neglect’ using a Little Engine That Could-like logo. It worked well for both the annual fundraiser, which included the sale of toys at very reasonable prices to encourage healthy play, and for a variety of counseling services connected with the center.
“‘Welcome to a world full of Beautiful Music’ was another project I developed that included a CD that is given to all newborns in our area. The music is all late baroque/early classical—Haydn, Mozart, Bach—performed by local musicians and includes an insert on how to listen to and enjoy classical music with your children.”
When Bailly was first faced with creating a brand for the Fargo Film Festival it was deemed impossible to completely disassociate it in people’s minds from the dark, comedic film of the same name. So Bailly and organizers decided to draw on the renown and popularity of the film. “The logo for the Fargo Film Festival is derived from the bullet holes in the road sign that is emblematic of the movie. We certainly traded on the link between Fargo the movie, Fargo the city, Fargo the theatre and Fargo the film festival.”
But as the years have passed and the Fargo Film Festival has become an established, well-regarded event in the industry, Bailly says they have moved to connect less with the film and more with the city of Fargo’s own quirkiness and the region’s infamous weather.
“We have used the remoteness of our geographic location and the weather to build interest in the festival. It has worked. People love the opportunity to ‘survive’ Fargo in March. We use slogans such as ‘Why go to Cannes when You Can go to Fargo?’ Or in conjunction with glasses that make stars appear around lights—especially at night—we use the phrase ‘The Fargo Film Festival, where everyone is a star.’ Also, each year for the last four years I have used a different artist or photographer for our festival cover and festival publicity. I include the Fargo Film Festival ‘sign’ icon in the context of the cover art. This worked really well this year (2009) in conjunction with our opening film Ice People. This was perfectly branded for our festival and the winter we are finally coming out of.” (Visit www.fargofilmfestival.org for more information.)
The importance of the Fargo locale cannot be overstated. More than just focused on the historic Fargo Theatre, the festival’s activities are in the equally historic downtown area, mixing together film and tourism. Many pre-parties are held in a variety of independent restaurants and are very popular. Bailly says all of this proximity and charming locality serves to bond festival audiences and filmmakers. “We are also very fortunate to be a part of a community that, contrary to popular perceptions, is very responsive to and supportive of new creative entertaining and educational concepts, projects and programming. We may live in the frozen tundra but our brains and senses of humor are definitely not frozen.”
Of course good branding is more than witty slogans and pithy assertions. A brand needs core values that its followers can favorably identify with and which serve to differentiate it in the “marketplace.” On these core values Bailly echoes the comments on unique weather and geography but says that there is a more important “brand characteristic” of the Fargo Film Festival. “Our focus is on filmmakers and the art of filmmaking. We make little effort to pursue premiere screenings. We focus on making the most out of the winning films that are selected by our jurors in nine categories.”
In aiming to be more about the art form than the “scene” (yes, I’m looking at you, Sundance), Bailly and the festival have focused on areas in which their festival can be strong instead of on weaknesses that would hobble the brand in heads-up competition with its peers. “We really do pride ourselves in celebrating filmmakers and the art of filmmaking, not deal-making. Let’s face it, the big distributors are in all probability not coming to Fargo.” And in a way, the Fargo Film Festival’s attitude of substance over style and sincere pragmatism and self-knowledge over pretending to be something it’s not is a perfect reflection of the character of the residents of Fargo (and North Dakota) who have come to proudly embrace the festival as their own.
For Bailly, knowing your community and region and, more importantly, exactly who your potential audiences will be, is just the beginning of what it takes to put together a well-branded film festival. Her personal checklist for success ranges from the technical to the specifics of promotion. “Focus on authentic jurying processes and put the best product submitted to the festival on the screen. Weave together a fabric of good programming, factoring in local general audience tastes with the ‘more sophisticated’ appetites of the film ‘experts.’ Marketing. Marketing. Marketing. It’s very important for everyone’s comfort level and experience to cover the hard costs of the festival through sponsorships and advertising sales prior to opening day. This allows you the freedom to not nickel and dime visiting filmmakers and local audience members for every little glass of wine and stuffed mushroom.”
The festival has also branded itself locally. While the highly famous might not attend, the festival creates a sense of community ownership and local pride—something better-known festivals do not accomplish in the cities they take over for a sliver of time each year. Bailly points out that many committed, creative volunteers do everything from serving as film jurors to organizing a movie-themed window competition in downtown Fargo. “Volunteers chair our formal festival advisory committee and commit hours and hours to the festival literally year round. We really could not survive without their efforts. We are fortunate to have strong film programs at two of the academic institutions in the Fargo area. These programs provide student interns for the festival and valuable student person power throughout the days of the festival.”
After nearly a decade and an increasingly high level of recognition and success, where does Bailly think the festival needs, or wants, to go in the future? “We will continue to focus on celebrating filmmaking and filmmakers. We will continue to treat winning filmmakers very well, housing them at a wonderful downtown boutique hotel. We intend to add more workshops, panel discussions as well as informal interaction between audiences and visiting filmmakers.” You betcha.