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At a crossroads: Three Dollar Cinema turns to the community for aid

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Photo courtesy of Three Dollar Bill Cinema
Photo courtesy of Three Dollar Bill Cinema

Three Dollar Bill Cinema is at a crossroads. The arts nonprofit behind the iconic Seattle Queer Film Festival and TRANSlations (one of only three festivals in all of North America showcasing Trans and Nonbinary films and filmmakers) has found itself at an economic tipping point.

"The arts are really struggling right now," said the organization's board president, Telved Devlet. "Three Dollar Cinema is no exception to this. As we looked at our overall 2023 drive, we are coming up short from sponsored dollars, donation grants, etc."

A critical moment
This is happening at a critical time for the beloved Seattle organization. "We've had a lot of transition going on — which is good," exclaimed Devlet. "At the same time, we're at that point where we'd like to pay all of our debts [from COVID] and set ourselves up for continued future success. We are really in need of raising $20,000 to get us through to the end of March 2024, the first quarter of next year. That is when our sponsors come back online and our grants come online.

"But that means we're in a gap right now. We're trying to clear out all the debt and set ourselves up to kick off the new year, which for us is TRANSlations, our Trans and Nonbinary film festival, in May. The board has been diligently working to make that happen."

But TRANSlations isn't the only item on the agenda. "The Seattle Queer Film Festival [SQFF] is heading into its 29th year, and that's extremely exciting," remarked Devlet. "We've [also] got our Reel Queer Youth programs happening right now, and it's important to keep those going. We've started up our screenwriter salons, and those are an important part of our organizational mission to help support and inspire the next generation of Queer filmmakers...

"So we're really asking people to get the message out [about Three Dollar Bill Cinema], because this evangelism is a form of support. We're [also] asking people to support us directly by becoming a member — which is only $60 annually for a single individual or $110 for a pair." (See below for where to donate or join.)

Building on success
Part of sustaining the organization is putting all of the lessons learned and institutional changes made during the COVID shutdown into common practice.

"We were one of the first festivals to pivot online," Devlet proudly stated. "I'd say that's one of the biggest lessons we learned during COVID: that there is a huge streaming audience out there eager to watch Queer film. That's been awesome for us from an equity and accessibility standpoint. Before, we were really just Capitol Hill. Now we've gone [to] Columbia City [and] people can also watch from the comfort of their homes. And not only in Washington! We now own Alaska, Oregon, and Idaho along with Washington.

"But now those bills setting all of that up and making it a reality need to be paid. We're... really trying to push our way through in our funding, so as to be in a position where we can build on this success and continue to grow."

The cost of sustaining a valuable organization
This means explaining to Pacific Northwest residents the ongoing value of having a local arts organization entirely focused on LGBTQIA+ cinema. More to the point, it takes more than a successful two-week film festival to pay for an organization's operational costs for an entire year.

"Exactly," stated Devlet. "I think sometimes people think just because you have big-name sponsors, that means you're getting huge amounts of money. That's not it at all. It takes a full house during a festival to attract sponsors. It takes dollars to put on a festival. Operational costs are year-round, not just during TRANSlations or SQFF.

"There are costs associated with renting facilities, advertising, bringing in filmmakers, all of that. If you took [SQFF] as its own little island, it can be great. It works. It can pay for itself.

"But [there are] administrative costs and ... you have to have people ... write grants, do outreach to the public, and work on our community development connections with our partner organizations. You have to pay your people. That's where you start to really see the biggest burden on small nonprofits."

Vital for the community and filmmakers
For those questioning whether or not, after almost 30 years of existence, there is still a need for an LGBTQIA+ arts organization in Seattle, Devlet is quick with an answer.

"It's critical," he said unequivocally. "It's evident in the news each and every day, with the amount of legislation against our existence, that these Queer stories still matter. Every day there's a political attack on our existence. These can result in mental health and other issues for the Queer community. When you focus specifically on LGBTQIA+ programming, we're able to shine a light on these issues, because it's a community we are a vital part of.

"It's great that Seattle is such a great community, especially for cinema, but you're only going to get a certain few films that can crack through into a general release. People will sometimes say they saw a Gay or Lesbian Hallmark film for the holidays, but those are like 0.001% of films available to see pretty much anywhere.

"The reality is, to get to be a filmmaker, to even be seen by a Netflix, a Hulu, a Hallmark, or any of these streamers, you've had to have some credibility and history in the industry. We're giving a space for this next generation of filmmakers to thrive, learn, grow, and exhibit their work."

"Our partnerships with NFFTY (the National Film Festival for Talented Youth) and Northwest Film Forum, working with the youth through our Reel Queer Youth program — those are other unique ways of enabling our visibility," Devlet added.

"Visibility: that's the key word. I think we all know that once people came out and they were visible, it really shifted the conversation on issues like Gay marriage, Trans stories, the violence that occurs in those communities. Through Three Dollar Bill's programs and festivals, these are sometimes the only places these stories get to be told."

Devlet added, "We're out there trying to continue to create this visibility for these films, for these artists, as it is important to us to make sure Queer artistic voices continue to get heard."

Donating and spreading the word
For Queer stories to continue being told at SQFF, TRANSlations, and other Three Dollar Bill Cinema programs and events, the board president knows exactly what he wants Seattle and Pacific Northwest residents to do.

"I'd love them to go to our website, https://www.threedollarbillcinema.org and see the variety of ways they can help," said Devlet. "They can go to https://donorbox.org/support-queer-film right now to be a part of this funding drive.

"If they can't contribute financially right now, I'd love for them to evangelize this cause with all of their Queer friends and straight allies. If they know of people who have company matches, please send them our way, as that's a great way to support us. They can connect to our website to volunteer.

"They can also just give us feedback, as we're all part of a big Queer family and we'd love to hear from everyone.

"We're at a juncture where we, as an organization, have to make a decision. Does the Pacific Northwest see [Three Dollar Bill Cinema] as a viable, contributing part of their experience or not? What we're fundraising for is the minimum we need to keep things going. If anyone out there can help, you'll be making sure that LGBTQIA+ cinema continues to thrive and survive here in Seattle. This support will give us the breathing room we need to invest fully in our future and to really celebrate Queer joy for decades to come."

Go to https://donorbox.org/support-queer-film to support Three Dollar Bill Cinema at this critical juncture.