It hasn't been a good year for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. In February, Arvest Bank filed a foreclosure suit over more than $300,000 on loans on the Malco Theater. The non-profit festival board owes close to $20,000 in taxes to a central business improvement district as well as two years of unpaid bills to local vendors. If that wasn't dire enough, in August a microburst storm struck the Malco, leaving the roof damaged and the theater unavailable for this year's festival.
That the festival, which begins on Friday, Oct. 12, and continues through Oct. 21, didn't simply die off after 20 years is a testament to new leadership and support from longtime partners. Susan Altrui, director of marketing and development for the Little Rock Zoo and a film producer on the side, stepped in as board chairwoman in March, quickly assembling an almost completely new board and working with Arvest to convince it to withdraw the foreclosure and allow the board to try to sell the theater, parking lot and three office buildings it owns to pay off its debts. Meanwhile, the Arkansas Motion Picture Institute (AMPI), a non-profit started by filmmakers and Little Rock Film Festival founders Brent and Craig Renaud to support local film festivals and foster film industry growth, hired Courtney Pledger as executive director and immediately turned her over to the Hot Springs Festival as interim director. Pledger, an Arkansas native and film producer who returned to Little Rock last year when she realized that all of her current projects, including an animated film called "B.O.O." with Seth Rogen attached, could be managed away from L.A., brings film knowledge and business acumen to the festival, Altrui said. "The organization has had a lot of people with film and art knowledge in the past, but not so much business savvy," Altrui said. "Courtney has produced films with budgets of $150 million. She knows how to stay on budget. She knows what good film is. Her touch to the programming has made all the difference."
Even with a strong line-up, Altrui said the festival very nearly didn't happen. Fundraising in the face of such a dismal recent track record from the board was challenging, she said.
"We have a lot of dedicated donors who, for the last 20 years, had given money over and over again and had seen the festival go through problems, and these donors had given them chance after chance, and [the foreclosure] was really the last straw for them.
"We can say that we've got new leadership and a new board and fresh ideas and we've got the organization back on track, but if you've heard that time and time again, it's hard to put your money behind it a third or fourth or fifth time."
Altrui and Pledger's pitch must have been convincing. Several of the original founders of the festival donated enough to fund the festival this year, and after the August storm damaged the Malco, the Arlington Hotel offered to donate space to host the festival. Pledger said the projectors that will be used at the Arlington are state-of-the-art and "better than what was in the Malco for sure." Most of the equipment comes from the AMPI.
Altrui said that, while it is the board's preference that the festival return to the Malco, it's important to separate the festival from the theater.
"We can have a successful festival and not have it at the Malco. The festival is really about Hot Springs. When it started 21 years ago, it wasn't at the Malco. It was at little theaters all around Central Avenue and the downtown area, and it can return to that if it has to."
Pledger said she's not sure precisely what her role with the festival will be in the future.
"As soon of the intensity of the Hot Springs festival is behind us, we're going to sit down as a board and figure out the way in which AMPI can be the most effective. We certainly know it's going to be about helping the state's festivals. However it plays out with the Hot Springs festival — whether someone else is festival director with me as their sidekick — I will never desert the festival."
7:15 p.m. Friday, Oct. 12
This documentary profile of the Texas governor was produced largely by Arkansans, including co-director Jack Lofton, director of photography Gabe Mayhan and executive producer Susan Altrui. Worth seeing if only to remember a time when a state that's most recently elected Rick Perry and George W. Bush as governor was led by a liberal icon.
4:50 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13
The latest film from the directors of "Jesus Camp" considers the economic devastation of Detroit. It's drawn rave reviews. The New Yorker's David Denby called it, "the most moving documentary I have seen in years."
8:45 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 13
A consideration of pin-up legend Bettie Page's enduring appeal. Page passed away in 2008, but before she died and after years in seclusion, she provided narration for most the film.
7 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, and 5:45 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 16
A profile of the excellent soul singer, who made his record debut at 62. His story includes childhood abandonment, homelessness and steady poverty.
7:35 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 16
A look at Texas' wacky state board of education as it rewrites textbook standards to reflect creationism and other retrograde ideas. It won a special jury award at Tribeca this year.