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Hot Springs film festival plagued by debt 

All but one staffer furloughed.

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Dan Anderson, interim executive director of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute, said last Thursday he expected the Internet to be shut off at the institute's headquarters in the Malco Theater in downtown Hot Springs due to non-payment. The non-profit institute is currently around $30,000 in debt, according to Anderson, and paying even basic expenses has become trying.

Interim HSDFI board chairman Dennis Simpson intervened on Friday to ensure that the Internet remained on and said the board was working on a plan to get back on firm footing.

A little less than a month ago, the HSDFI board of director's voted to furlough the institute's full-time executive director and three more part time employees — an assistant festival director, an accounting director and a graphic designer — until the institute could afford to pay them again. Sissi Bennett, the board chair, and Doug Gulley, the vice chair, resigned in protest, according to Anderson. The Times reached Bennett's husband, who said she'd been in a car accident and was unavailable to talk. Gulley said he couldn't talk until he returned from vacation later this week.

Simpson said the institute racked up debt because of too many small programs that weren't sustaining themselves and because of the staffing required to maintain those programs. In November, Simpson said the board asked former Executive Director Malinda Herr-Chambliss to cease all non-essential programs. Nonetheless, he said the board was notified of 14 new programs in March.

Herr-Chambliss said many, if not all, of the programs were required by grants or sponsorships. She blamed the institute's current problems, in part, on the failure to raise projected funds at its annual Arkansas Cultural Enrichment fundraising event last spring and the three-and-a-half month furlough period for all staff save the financial director that followed. Herr-Chambliss also said the board had become disengaged, noting that "the aggressive deterioration" of the board became evident in January.

Asked if she would come back after the furloughs, Herr-Chambliss said, "I can't answer that question at this time."

Interim Director 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.

He blamed the debt, in part, on 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."

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," Simpson said.

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.

Simpson said the board had been forced to furlough much of its staff in the past, but the media didn't report it. He said he is 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.

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