The Name Blame

Posted September 10, 2009 in News

When it comes to supplying a product for public consumption, brand name is everything. Even in the world of local film festivals. That message became clear last May after a disagreement over the format and aesthetic of the Smogdance Film Festival caused festival director Charlotte Cousins and the dA Center for the Arts in Pomona to part ways. 


As director of Pomona’s three-day cinematic production since 2001, Cousins continues to cling to the “Smogdance” name along with ownership of the festival’s Internet domain name as well as a partnership with long-time technical director Michael Meyka. However, the dA Center, a non-profit entity responsible for producing the festival since it’s inception in 1998, also refuses to give up the name. They’re currently promoting their own film festival under the “SmogdAnce Film Society” (emphasis on dA).


As both film festivals jockey to promote their authenticity, those waiting for Smogdance to return in 2010 may be wondering if one name is big enough for two festivals.


“Smogdance has built its reputation on quality, format and consistency and there has been no change in this respect,” says Cousins. “Therefore, there is no need to label [our] festival differently.”


Cousins is now teamed up with the nonprofit organization Friends of the Fox to run the festival. She is also currently employed as their treasurer. Cousins says that she welcomes dA Center’s film festival, but says they are using the “Smogdance” name without her permission.

However, the dA Center has argued that they have a case for intellectual theft considering that the name and concept were first conceived by one of their members, Dan Dobrin, in 1998. 


Cousins blames the initial split with the dA and its board members over her resistance to giving Smogdance a more provocative edge in terms of film selection and aesthetic. She ended up financing a lot of the promotion and supplies for the festival herself with the help of Meyka, who has provided film projection equipment to the festival since 1999.


But according to Chris Toovey, president and co-founder of dA’s board of directors, this claim lends little explanation to why Cousins disassociated herself with the dA Center while taking over the domain name independently without telling the organization and using a title created by the dA Center to market her film festival.


“We’ve run the film festival, everything through the dA and Charlotte complains that she spent a lot of her own money; it’s because she hasn’t come to the board [of directors] and worked with the board,” says Toovey. All non-profit organizations are required to vote by committee in areas of finance and planning. 


In terms of their stubbornness to relinquish the name “Smogdance,” both parties say the name recognition of the festival is part of its growing successes.


Since it began over 11 years ago, Smogdance has earned praise from mainstream papers like the New York Times, which acknowledged film festival contributions to underserved areas of the fine arts. It’s hosted Academy Award-winning short films, up-and-coming filmmakers, world-class directors and received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2007.


Last April, Smogdance broke new ground, showcasing its films at the newly renovated Fox Theater. Ironically, Cousins’ production, aided by the Friends of the Fox, wasn’t able to secure the Fox Theater for Jan. 2010 partly because of an unpaid facilities bill for $3,800 issued to the festival for its use of the Fox this past April. But Cousins says that a threat of “ugly litigious action” by the dA over her festival’s return to the Fox forced them to return to Harvey Mudd College in Claremont where Smogdance was held from 2005-08.


Meanwhile, the SmogdAnce Film Society is publicizing their film festival at the Fox Theater which they’ve pushed back to October 2010 under the direction of Bob Pece, who has taken over directing the dA’s festival as well as other quarterly film exhibitions. As of now, resolution between the dueling festivals is nowhere in sight.


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