Local Economies Benefit from Film Festival Success

If someone had said in 2012 that a certain prominent Arkansas film festival would no longer exist in 2016, many would have assumed that meant the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival. That was the year Courtney Pledger took over the troubled festival as executive director. By her own description, it was in debt and “support had completely dropped away.”

But today, the HSDFF is as healthy as ever. It’s the Little Rock Film Festival on which the curtain has fallen, reportedly because founders Craig and Brent Renaud no longer had enough time to devote to the popular event.

Meanwhile, Pledger’s success in reviving the HSDFF took a lot of old-fashioned hard work.

“We just dug in, didn’t quit — didn’t sleep much either in that first year,” Pledger said by email. “With a small board of directors, we pulled together the October 2012 festival in less than six months. When a group of the festival’s original supporters saw what we were doing, they came forward with help in the weeks before the festival.”

Since then, attendance and support have grown. In 2013, HSDFF was named an Oscar-qualifying event, meaning winners of the festival’s Spa City Best Documentary Short Award can be considered for the Oscar award for Best Documentary Short Subject.

The upcoming festival — based at the Arlington hotel, October 7-16, 2016 — will be the 25th.

“Our quarter-century mark as the oldest all-documentary festival in North America will be a tremendous celebration,” Pledger said, “with over 100 of the best documentary films from around the world, special guests and very special energy.”

That energy may be hard to quantify, but Steve Arrison, CEO of the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, said HSDFF accounts for more than 800 room nights in local hotels each year. And, while an actual economic study has not been done, he believes the impact of the festival to be several million dollars annually.

“It’s such a positive for our community in terms of visitors, publicity and quality of life for the citizens that live here,” he said.

Maybe that’s why, while festivals such as Little Rock and Pine Bluff have ended their runs, others have appeared around the state, from Bentonville to Eureka Springs to El Dorado.

Pledger said that having a variety of different festivals can strengthen the film culture in Arkansas, but it’s important to have diversity in dates, location and subject matter.

“It’s crucial to brand a festival as unusual so that it stands apart in the landscape amongst thousands of other festivals,” she said.

HSDFF, with its focus on documentaries, seems to have done just that. Pledger said that each year during the two-week run, more hotel rooms are filled and more out-of-state license plates are visible around town. She is optimistic that the growth can continue.

“The sky is the limit,” she said.

Top photograph courtesy of the Hot Springs Documentary Festival.

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