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True/False Film Fest retains intimacy as ticket sales, recognition increase

Tuesday, March 5, 2013 | 7:22 p.m. CST; updated 10:29 a.m. CST, Wednesday, March 6, 2013
True/False Film Fest goers wait at a Q after the Jubilee on opening night Thursday at the Missouri Theatre.

COLUMBIA — If Sundance is a shot of whiskey, the True/False Film Fest is a good pint of beer.

Writer Tom Roston, who covers documentaries and film festivals on his POV blog, Doc Soup, now puts True/False in the same category as other established festivals he has attended.

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True/False represents a contradiction in the film fest world, he said, because like a good pint, it is top-notch while being totally laid back.   

"Sundance is like a whiskey shot because it can be so intense," he said. "Toronto is like a glass of wine; it's sophisticated. True/False is on par with a lot of the big names, and it brings with it the most comfort."

Over the past 10 years, Columbia's festival has seen vast growth. Since 2004, ticket sales have increased by 950 percent, and by 17 percent in the past year alone, to 43,762 tickets. Even with the growth, True/False remains small in comparison to other international festivals. 

Indiewire.com listed True/False as one of the top 50 leading film festivals, among big names such as Sundance Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival.         

The international success of True/False comes, in part, from maintaining a high priority on the festival's origin, said David Wilson, who co-directs the festival along with Paul Sturtz. 

"We started with a good idea," Wilson said. "Though we've continued to develop, we still function differently than other festivals. We're not competitive and we don't push an industry agenda. Our priority has been the whole festival experience." 

This year the fest featured 12 venues and offered 37 feature films; three programs of short films; and two older films shown in partnership with Ragtag Cinema as part of the Neither/Nor series. Wilson said 955 films were submitted.

The number of venues felt right, he said, and the festival will continue to offer 35 to 40 films in the future.   

"We always want to have venues within walking distance and we always want to be a four-day fest," he said. "There are only so many venues in downtown Columbia and only so many days. Given what's available, we've reached a good size." 

Total capacity is at 55,000 tickets, nearly 12,000 more than the number sold this year, Wilson said. Unlike other festivals that rely heavily on corporate sponsorship, ticket and pass sales make up more than half of the fest's cash budget, he said. 

"I'm really proud that no single sponsor makes up more than 5 percent of our cash budget," Wilson said. 

True/False also stands out because some of its films premiered at other festivals. 

"It's not about being first for them," Roston said. "They're not trying to claim films, they're just trying to create an experience. What they have created is a following that is powerful, passionate and wide." 

As the fest continues to grow, Wilson said, he is proud it still feels handmade and intimate. 

"We will see a further constriction on passes and seats," he said. "But we want to make it accessible without losing the flavor of the fest. We didn't feel compelled to grow into a 10-day fest like Sundance because we don't have to. We can be something else."   


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