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Can the Cucalorus Film Festival be One of the Top 20 in the World?

On the upcoming occasion of its 20th anniversary, it’s a perfect time to reflect on what the Cucalorus film festival has meant to our community and how it could develop in the future. Cucalorus is a perfect example of the importance of the arts in our community, boasting an estimated economic impact of $5.5 million annually, from a budget of only $350,000. In addition, the festival highlights area film community infrastructure, provides an alternative outlet for important works of art, and provides education through films that touch every aspect of the human experience. It’s also a tool for attracting knowledge workers, Dan Brawley—the Cucalorus director for fifteen years—emphasized during a recent lunch. Last year, accumulated attendance at the events numbered 14,784, with attendees coming from 78 cities across the country, exposing many to the Cape Fear area for the first time.

If that isn’t enough to make an impression, Cucalorus was also named “One of the Coolest Film Festivals in the World 2013” by MovieMaker Magazine. This earned media and other articles published worldwide have an immeasurable positive impact for Wilmington. The festival also has staying power by celebrating its 20th anniversary this year when it’s held November 12th-16th.

The list of positive attributes is impressive, but even more so when one realizes that the budget for similar size festivals is $800,000-$1,000,000. Cucalorus is run on a shoestring by comparison. In some ways it is a victim of its own success, and raising awareness of the numerous benefits it provides is important to showing the business community, local governments and general public that their support is warranted.

Dan’s passion for the film festival that received more than 1,600 submissions this year is evident and expected. His understanding of the greater issues facing the arts community, importance of the arts in attracting and retaining skilled workers, and familiarity with the Chamber’s Cape Fear Future initiative was refreshing…although not surprising either.

After all, Dan is an entrepreneur himself. The Independent Art Company (IAC) was founded in 2003 by Brawley and Dixon Stetler. The IAC’s creative compound on Princess Street in downtown Wilmington includes Jengo’s Playhouse, a 60-seat micro-cinema and artists’ studios, and Wabi Sabi Warehouse, an intimate gallery and six studios where resident artists work in a range of media, from painting to metalsmithing to music.

Dan’s business acumen and notoriety for building Cucalorus into an internationally recognized festival (considered one of the 40 best out of approximately 3,000 held annually) have built him a solid reputation both regionally and nationally, and propelled him into the role as a spokesperson for the arts. Although things have improved with the rebirth of a local arts council, the support that the arts receive locally, despite the many tangible benefits, is still a concern. For many years New Hanover County was the wealthiest county in the state without a government-supported Arts Council and was in last place in arts funding. Studies have shown that for every $1 invested by government in the arts, there is a match of $16 in private investment. The arts community lost that matching return on investment for many years.

This was distressing because we have one of the most vibrant cultural assets in North Carolina with Cucalorus, as well as nationally recognized Thalian Hall, the Cameron Art Museum, the Wilmington Symphony, and much more. It’s become increasingly important that the positive economic message about the arts comes from outside the arts community. Without the support of the business community, artistic endeavors that serve as local economic engines may sputter, not realizing their true potential.

Keeping creative minds in our community may also be more difficult. When the Chamber began its Cape Fear Future initiative, research showed that the area is a victim to what the Catalytix consultants referred to as “brain drain,” losing creative, skilled workers to areas with more to offer. Dan provided firsthand evidence of this reality when he noted that none of his original friends in the arts community are in the area any longer.

We are fortunate to have so many talented individuals that have chosen our lifestyle over that of larger cities. Dan Brawley could be in a bigger market directing a larger film festival. But he has remained here, dedicated to growing and improving Cucalorus and coaxing additional support from government and business leaders. Can he grow the festival to be one of the Top 20, perhaps even Top 10, best film festivals in the world? How will its shoestring budget look over the festival’s next 20 years?

Those questions can have positive outcomes if we continue to recognize and acknowledge the significant impact the arts have in so many ways. Let’s embrace the arts wholeheartedly. We will enjoy a more colorful, eclectic, vibrant community if we do…and grow business at the same time.