UPDATE: Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute plagued by debt | Rock Candy

Friday, May 13, 2011

UPDATE: Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute plagued by debt

Posted By on Fri, May 13, 2011 at 3:28 PM

Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival

On Friday, Dan Anderson expects the internet to be shut off at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute's headquarters in the Malco Theater in downtown Hot Springs due to non-payment. The non-profit institute is currently around $40,000 $30,000* in debt, according to Anderson, interim executive director of the institute.

A little less than a month ago, the HSDFI board of director's voted to lay off the institute's full-time executive director and three more part time employees — an assistant festival director, an accounting director and a graphic designer. The Times has not been able to get any directors to comment tonight, but Anderson said the impetus of the layoffs was curbing deficit spending. Sissi Bennett, the board chair, and Doug Gulley, the vice chair, resigned in protest, according to Anderson.

Anderson, who previously served as program director, said that he was retained to ensure that planning for the festival in October continues. He works part time and makes $12 an hour, which qualifies him for food stamps.

UPDATE: I spoke with interim HSDFI board chairman Dennis Simpson earlier today, and he said he'd personally made sure that the internet wasn't shut off this morning.

He said the four employees laid off were actually furloughed and would be brought back on staff when the institute can afford to pay them again. Simpson said he understood former executive director Melinda Herr-Chambliss would not be coming back.

Simpson said the institute racked up debt because of too many small programs that weren't sustaining themselves and because of staffing required to maintain those programs.

Anderson said some of it also came from overdue hotel bills related to filmmaker hospitality during last year's Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and staff costs. More filmmakers came to the festival than organizers expected, he said.

"We weren't exactly giving them the family farm. Just basic necessities that filmmakers expect from a renowned film festival. But we overspent."

In November, Simpson said the board asked Herr-Chambliss to cease all non-essential programs. Nonetheless, in March, he said the board was notified of 14 new programs.

Simpson said that in his time with the institute he'd seen three significant financial downturns. This is familiar territory for non-profits, he said.

"We have a $1.1 million 65,000 square foot building that's mostly paid for. The problem is liquidity. Keeping cash in the door."

Still, as dire as the immediate financial outlook is, Anderson said he's confident that the documentary festival will indeed celebrate its 20th anniversary in the fall. The board is in the process of talking to people about getting an equity loan, Simpson said. And according to Anderson, the institute recently received verbal confirmation of a large government grant.

Anderson Simpson said that the board was forced to furlough much of its staff three years ago, but that no media reported it. But he said he's committed to being transparent.

"We’re in a new mode, with a new face, and our goal is to be transparent and open."

The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, held annually in the fall, is considered one of the premier documentary festivals in the country. According to the institute, it's also one of the longest running in the world, second only to a festival in Amsterdam. Since its inception, some 400,000 have attended.

Surely, there's someone with money and guidance out there. It'd be tragic to see an institution like the festival die off.

*Anderson said in an email on Sunday that open further review the debt was closer to $30,000.

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