The Ojai Film Festival kicks off next weekend, October 24th through the 28th, with a slate of films, panels and events that, by conscious design, reflect the spirit and character of Ojai itself. It is not that the festival is about Ojai. Like others, it screens an international pool of movies for both pleasure and competition. What sets it apart is Ojai's starring role in the experience of the festival.
Sharing Ojai is often a fundamental part of what the city's cultural festivals intend to do. For festival organizers, bringing visitors into more intimate contact with the place can foster a deeper sense of enjoyment and belonging in their festival.
When this synergy between cultural event and place is successful, it enhances both. If it is supported by the community and local government, cultural events can become an integral part of a town and serve as a powerful tool in marketing it as a destination. There is a number of ways that the film festival and other Ojai cultural festivals both impact and are informed by their place and they offer examples for how arts and civic leaders might join forces to enlist and support each other for mutual success.
For years, smaller communities, like Ojai, who have been celebrating what makes them special with festivals, might not be aware of a national conversation that has studied, validated and opened funding streams for what they do. This synergy is called "placemaking" which is the understanding that creative initiatives can enhance the quality of place and spark economic and social renewal.
Since this conversation is rooted in Ojai, it is necessary to first describe it as a place. It's beauty and mystique engenders a phantasm of images, aspirations, and sensations that one can only begin to approach with a bit of poetry. Poet Sandra Grass offers this:
The desert embraces the forest
Stretched and nestled, forgiving and given
Like a reluctant mammal in the reptile trance of sleep
And breathing the heat of another land's night
Here we wrestle the infinite sky
Here we wonder
While we wile away precious time
In most precious of places
Where our children are goddesses and gods
Hearing the whisper of why
They answer in the language
Topography is destiny and this couldn't be more true for Ojai. Just twelve miles inland from Ventura, it's an isolated valley, accessible by one road in and out and surrounded by mountains whose seasons funnel ocean winds or capture heat, cooling and cooking the valley to the delight of avocados, citrus, lavender, lizards and oak trees. Derived from the Chumash word, "Awhai," or moon, Ojai hums in concert with its sky and mountains and trees.
It is precisely this sense of being set apart that makes Ojai a getaway, whether for weekend visitors, artists and naturalists drawn to its magnificence, celebrities seeking privacy, pioneers of the spirit, or folks wanting to live a country life. It's an archetypal small town with enough California free-spiritedness to have let its distinct lifestyles etch their mark on the character of the place.This cultural mix, combined with its wild beauty, is what has made Ojai a destination.
Being a getaway and a destination can be a one-two punch for attracting tourists. But the downside to being remote is it is hard for other industries to set up shop. For Ojai, one-third of the city's general fund is funded by hotel occupancy taxes. "Our economy is based on tourism," Ojai City Manager Rob Clark recently said, "literally, our ability to pave the streets and keep the parks open depends on effective marketing and bringing people to the Ojai Valley." When the Ojai Valley Inn, the city's largest employer, closed in 2002 for a multi-year renovation, the city lost almost 25% of its revenue in the form of bed and sales taxes.
The silver lining is that the belt-tightening enacted to address that crisis better prepared Ojai for the coming recession in 2008. Local businesses also got organized and approached the city for funding to create a visitors's bureau to help market Ojai. For smaller communities, it is critical to bring in outside visitors. While buying local is a powerful way to support a community, it is really just pushing money around within a micro-economy. The only way to increase the amount of money flowing through an economy is to attract outside dollars.
Cultural offerings are a key driver in attracting visitors. Cultural and Heritage Tourism, defined by the Office of National Tourism as "tourism that focuses on the culture of a destination - the lifestyle, heritage, arts, industries and leisure pursuits of the local population," can be the lifeblood of a destination economy. Research shows that these tourists spend more money than other leisure travelers- up to 62% more on average. They travel more frequently, are willing to pay more for lodging that reflects the culture of the destination they are visiting, and they are also more likely to sample a wide range of activities while traveling, such as visiting museums and historic sites, enjoying unique dining experiences, sampling farmers markers and local specialities- activities that tend to put money in the pockets of local business and institutions. The demographics of Ojai are such that their cultural events tend to be about specific art forms; writing, music, art. But this research also applies to tourists seeking celebrations of ethnicities and heritage. The numbers helps us understand the fiscal impact, but at their essence, they are really telling the story of the value of an authentic connection to a place and its people.
Creators of festivals aren't relying on this data to dictate what they do. They are working from instinct, impulse, and desire- the magma flowing under the crust of culture. But it is interesting to point out when the manifestations of this flow work for or against the impulses. The evolution of the Ojai FIlm Festival is a case in point.
Festival founder and Ojai resident Steve Grumette came up with the idea for the festival in the late nineties while serving as a juror for a film festival in Moab, Utah. Recognizing the similarities between the two places; both were small towns whose artistic communities and physical majesty made them natural tourist destinations; Grumette thought that Ojai, being 75 miles from the filmmaking capital of the world, could easily support a festival.
Now in its thirteenth year, the festival has held fast to its artistic mission to show films that "enrich the human spirit." But it has survived some treacherous shifts in leadership and focus. When executive director Jamie Fleming took the helm three years ago, he recognized that the festival had molded its feel from the models of other festivals by linking itself to the more glamorous aspects of Ojai, like having its awards ceremony at Ojai Valley Inn, an internationally known 5-star resort. To him, "this just didn't feel like Ojai "and he asked his board to help him rethink the festival's relationship to the town. Grumette also recognized the need to move away from "high dollar fancy events." "We don't need those," he insists, "we have Ojai."
The idea is to put Ojai front and center as a setting where film lovers, independent filmmakers, and industry greats can mingle in a casual, friendly atmosphere. Fleming puts Ojai first in the formula: "come enjoy Ojai and see some great films." All of the screenings and event venues have been moved to the walkable downtown core so that patrons can informally mix with each other while experiencing the lovely arcade, shops and restaurants. Fleming sees this as a festival "where you can rub elbows with anybody." By circumventing the glamour, he hopes to put the public in more direct contact with each other and the art form.
He also wants the filmmakers to truly enjoy themselves in Ojai. The filmmaker reception is a barbecue and the awards ceremony is a brunch- in spectacular settings of course, but no red carpets or limos required. The festival also leverages Ojai's proximity to Los Angeles by recruiting renowned professionals for its panels and workshops.
The festival seeks out important films that in some way, as Grumette explains, "uplift people, or help them to feel good about being members of the human race, or encourage them to live meaningful lives inspired by the example of others." This is not to say the films have to feel good. The festival embraces challenging issues as part of the human experience. Just below the delight and entertainment courses the contemplation of a higher purpose, which reflects the spiritual teachings embedded in the psyche of the Ojai. Residents aren't afraid to claim that legacy. The secretary at the Ojai Police Department described Ojai to me as a "spiritual vortex" and even though she didn't believe in that, she "felt it.
Organizers have also offered the festival as a platform for the community. As an example, the festival is launching its first Focus Earth mini-festival of films presented by local groups working on environmental issues. Highlights include a screening of brand new, never-seen-before-footage of the earth's oceans gathered by the filmmakers of MacGillivray Freeman Films, the makers of IMAX movies.
Embracing the casual vibe of Ojai helps the festival distinguish itself from the glitz of the Santa Barbara festival which serves to parade films and actors before the press in the run up to the Oscars. By placing their focus on film lovers and high-quality independent filmmaking, for Fleming, who has served as a studio executive for over twenty years, the festival is "like a Teluride without the airplane." For founder Grumette, the festival's return to its Ojai roots is like a homecoming. "My original vision included a desire to share the unique character of Ojai through our festival, and over the years we diluted our focus on achieving that goal," he continues, "it is personally gratifying to me, having started with that vision, to be instrumental in reinvigorating it."
Ojai boasts a variety of festivals that offer other examples of how to successfully integrate with a city. One very helpful element is having a consistent schedule so that visitors can plan their visit and lodging in advance. And, with a calendar as busy as Ojai's, "it really helps to spread the crowds throughout the week and the year," says Ojai Visitors Bureau chief, Scott Eicher. The Ojai Film festival is running into this problem. They have been moving the dates around for the past years and find themselves sharing the upcoming weekend with the very popular Yoga Crib.
The Ojai Studio Artists Tour, which is in its twenty-ninth year, has a set annual date that allows visitors to book for the next year when checking out, according to local hotels. While other cities have studio tours, Ojai's is a fundraiser for arts education. It also gives patrons unique glimpses of Ojai through the studios and homes of its artists, a way to lift the veil and bring visitors into one facet of its mystique- how do people live here?
Many festivals are able to take advantage of Ojai's great bones: its charm, its reputation and its outdoor amphitheater, the Libbey Bowl. There is the much-heralded magnificence of its landscape and the pretty mission revival architecture. But it is the patchwork of owner-occupied stores and restaurants that really flavor the place. All of these assets are supported by another set of good bones- a collection of city ordinances that, in reflecting the sometimes conflicting values of its residents, help conspire to keep its charm.
Wordfest, an eight-day celebration of literary talent in the Ojai area, is the first Ojai festival to directly involve businesses by inviting them to program or host events, especially during its closing weekend Lit Crawl, where over 100 readings, performances, workshops and receptions take place in the walkable downtown core. In its third year this spring, it will be interesting to see if its ambitious schedule helps answer the call to make Ojai busier during the week.
Brian Bemel recognized the value of Ojai's festival infrastructure when he founded the Ojai Storytelling Festival fourteen years ago. After presenting storytelling events in the region for many years, he realized that there was enough appetite for the art form to concentrate it into a festival. Ojai's Libbey Bowl was his first choice as a home because of its intimacy. He also knew that Ojai as a place would provide the draw. "People just like going there," he says. He and colleague John Zeretske felt the same way when they decided to launch the Ojai World Music Festival two years ago, knowing that there was a need in the region and an eager audience waiting in Ojai.
The grandfather of Ojai cultural festivals, and one of the primary creators of the infrastructure supporting them is the Ojai Music Festival which was founded in 1945. The Libbey Bowl was built for the festival and was inaugurated by Aaron Copeland for its 1957 season. While there is much to write about the festival, what it has done undeniably well is to relentlessly but delicately pursue artistic excellence with a unique emphasis on experimentation and invention. It is a cultural festival that has aimed high and contributed to the field of music by doing so. Even more profoundly, festival leaders have conducted this pursuit with a deep-seated respect for its audience, and the audience's hunger and willingness to go along for the ride has made success and endurance inevitable, and its impact felt worldwide.
This is very much informed by Ojai as a place. "Ojai itself is a spiritual center, it attracts people with curiosity, ideas and idealism and it is a place of sublime natural beauty," offered artistic director Tom Morris from his home in Cleveland, Ohio, "these basic tenets were essential to establishing the festival sixty-seven years ago and to me are all a part of the gestalt of the experience of Ojai."
Ojai Days is just the thing to experience that gestalt. Founded in 1917, it celebrates all things Ojai. The festival tips it hat to Ojai as a "melting pot of performers from the stage and screen, world renown artisans, hippies young and old, transfer students, small town folks and big-city transplants" and it turns the streets over to the community to revel in itself, which is the role that festivals have played in villages and towns throughout history.
There are challenges that festivals and cities face as well. Festivals in small communities like Ojai often run into donor fatigue. The same people are asked to support multiple causes and events, or businesses are pitched time and again to pay for advertising when there is murky evidence at best that the festival will bring them any benefit. Scott Eicher reports, "business owners tell me that they could go out of business before ever opening their doors," from the number of solicitations they receive to support good causes.
To cover costs, festival organizers might then be tempted to go the vendor licensing route which then runs the risk of creating plain old festival fatigue. Streets choked with vendor booths hawking their wares end up blocking traffic to the ire of residents and blocking views and access to the offerings of the city for visitors. The vendor booth model thrusts buying into the forefront of the experience, forcing patrons to interact with a place primarily as a consumer. Why go to a festival when we can get this experience in so many other places?
What festivals really offer is the agora or the plaza, the reclaiming of public spaces for the pleasure of the people. When this space fosters the freedom to make self-directed discoveries or to create shared experiences with others, it answers a deep need for authentic contact between people and place. Visitors take these moments home, they become memories and stories, allowing them to take possession of a piece of the place just for themselves. A visitor then becomes a stakeholder and an ambassador.
Because of this, cultural festivals offer exchanges whose value can't be counted in terms of dollars.
Top Image: Ojai Sunrise | Photo: MichaelMcFadden.
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