By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
As the crowd lined up for tickets to the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival this weekend, there was hardly a place to sit at the Catalyst, which had opened up its sidewalk cafe to outdoor dining.
Down the street, as a steady flow of filmgoers filled the Roxy, some stopped at Big Dipper Ice Cream for a summer treat – never mind it’s only February.
Four days into the 2017 festival, ticket sales have already reached 60 percent of the 10-day goal, giving Rachel Gregg hope that this year’s event may be one of the best. The results have helped bolster local businesses in what’s often a slower time of year.
“We’re really excited about attendance, especially given that we moved 40 percent of our schedule after the collapse of the Silver Theater,” said Gregg, the festival’s executive director. “I’m really happy so far, and so are our filmmakers. The theaters are pretty full.”
With a full week remaining in the 2017 festival, Gregg’s optimism for a blockbuster event has pervaded much of downtown Missoula.
While the district’s restaurants serve as a year-round attraction, increased activity and an array of visitors, filmmakers and other industry insiders have provided a welcome boost in what typically serves as a transition between seasons.
“It’s nice because, for us, it’s still early in the season,” said Charlie Beaton, owner of Big Dipper, one of the city’s iconic stops. “So it’s a nice little bump in business. Having the Roxy right across the street is helpful.”
Last year, the festival included 200 films – and is up to 210 this year, according to Gregg. As an experiment, the festival also has expanded its number of supporters, adding the Missoula Children’s Theater and the Elks Lodge as new venues.
It also has maintained its partnership with the Holiday Inn Downtown Missoula, helping boost the hotel’s occupancy rates.
“It’s wonderful to have such an internationally recognized event here in Missoula,” said Mimi Gustafson, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing. “It’s a slower time of year, but we’ve been full on certain nights. It’s definitely been an increase in business for us.”
While this year’s numbers aren’t yet available, estimates from recent years suggest the festival has a direct economic impact of around $3 million, not including any multiplier.
That influx in spending has made the festival a popular week for downtown businesses, who look to the annual event for a boost in off-season sales.
“Our downtown businesses love the film festival – it’s a big hit this time of year,” said Linda McCarthy, executive director of the Missoula Downtown Association. “It brings people into the market place at a time when it’s a little quiet and slow. They have hundreds of people attending shows at multiple venues, and they’re definitely spending money while they’re here.”
In her first year running the festival, Gregg is pleased with attendance, though she believes the event can reach a wider audience with stronger publicity.
A film crew is currently filming this year’s event, Gregg said. The footage will be compiled as part of a national campaign to promote the festival in new markets with next year in mind.
“We’re known in the film industry, but I’d like to see more tourists coming to the festival in February.” she said. “We’re working on doing more of a national push for promotion. We have seen a little traction with our bigger national campaign, and we’ll expand that even more.”