Posted: January 29, 2015, 12:25 p.m.
by Katie Foster Howard.
One day, while working for a PR firm in Birmingham, Alabama, Chloe Collins received a call from a former employer about a position opening up with the Sidewalk Film Festival.
“I told [my employer] that I didn’t know the first thing about making a film,” Collins said. “And she said, ’That’s good. They’re actually looking for someone who doesn’t have that particular skill set. They want someone with your skill set.’”
Collins had no prior experience with film, or film festivals, when she accepted the position as executive director for the Alabama Moving Image Association — the nonprofit organization responsible for hosting the annual Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham. She did, however, have extensive experience in nonprofit work and event planning.
After graduating from Auburn University in December 2000, Collins moved to Birmingham to work in event planning for Saks Inc., then moved on to nonprofits, such as The Harbert Center, Kiwanis International and The Birmingham Music Club. Even when she took a position at Wilbanks Elam, a Birmingham public relations firm, she still focused on nonprofit work.
“If we took on a pro-bono account, or we were dealing with a paid client who needed advice about their charitable giving, a lot of that work landed in my lap,” Collins said. “But when this job opened [at Sidewalk], I had been a big fan of the festival, but I also really liked the idea of working for a nonprofit again.”
Instead of being intimidated by her lack of film experience, Collins saw the position as a challenge.
“The organization was not as stable then as it is now, and certainly with any nonprofit, there’s always some instability,” Collins said.
Sidewalk definitely is more financially stable now, as ticket sales have more than doubled since Collins took the position six years ago. Collins, who exudes a firm belief in teamwork, attributes this success first and foremost to the festival’s excellent programming.
Rachel Morgan, creative director and lead programmer for Sidewalk, explained that Collins gave her and her co-programmers complete autonomy in creating the schedule of films for the festival.
“Because Chloe doesn’t have a background in film, there is a trust that she places in us in creating great programming,” Morgan said. “Her strength is that she knows how to look at things from a practical standpoint, and her efforts have been a big part of what’s increased ticket sales over the last six or seven years.”
One of these efforts Morgan references is Collins’ early suggestion to change the festival date from mid-September to the end of August — a risky move, considering the Alabama heat. After conducting a series of focus groups, Collins discovered the major reason why people weren’t able to attend the festival during a weekend in September: Alabama football.
“We were hosting the event at the beginning of football season, and we’re in Birmingham, Alabama,” Collins said. “Football is king.”
Even though the festival had been the same weekend in September for 10 years, Sidewalk officially moved to its current late-August date in 2011, and the results were “dramatic,” according to Collins.
With more locals attending the festival, along with programming that keeps getting better and better, Sidewalk has garnered not only local attention, but international attention as well.
After being featured in USA Today in 2013 as one of 10 great places for a fabulous film festival, this year Sidewalk was named one of the 25 Coolest Film Festivals in the World by MovieMaker Magazine. Collins attributes all the good press to Southern hospitality.
Collins asked her staff on day one what the coolest thing about Sidewalk was, and everyone answered, “the parties.” Sidewalk is known for its soirees; the only problem was, they weren’t promoted to the public.
“You had to have a lanyard [to get in], so it was filmmakers, and sponsors, and volunteers that could get in,” Collins said. “So you’re telling me the coolest reason to come to the festival is a reason that we’re not selling? How do we resolve that?”
That first year, Collins organized a party after the Opening Night film. You could either buy a ticket just to see the film, or a ticket that would get you into both the film and the party afterward.
“Pretty much everybody said, ‘This is a dumb idea, nobody is going to pay to do that,’” Collins said. “We had to turn people away at the door.”
The fresh perspective that Collins brought to Sidewalk and the decisions that she made in those first few years have allowed the Southern indie film festival the opportunity to grow into an event that the Birmingham community can be proud of.
“People who live here are hungry for opportunities to showcase to other people, and to themselves, that this is a welcoming community, that with all our flaws has a fairly progressive attitude,” Collins said. “So I think people are excited about the opportunity to have something that they think is cool happen in their city.”