This Is the End of One Reel as We Know It

After producing Bumbershoot for 35 years, the nonprofit promoter has become a shell of its former self.

By Seth Sommerfeld August 28, 2015 Published in the September 2015 issue of Seattle Met

Bumbershoot e0no3e

Image: Cate Andrews

Artistically speaking, Bumbershoot 2014 was a success. The lineup included national headliners (Elvis Costello) and local favorites (the Head and the Heart), and feedback was overwhelmingly positive. And yet thanks to a combination of bad weather and poor planning, the festival was a financial disaster that left its nonprofit producer, One Reel—which had finally pulled out of a postrecession swoon—well, reeling. In fact there was a legitimate chance that Bumbershoot 2015 would have to be canceled. “After taking two steps forward, we took two steps back,” says Chris Porter, Bumbershoot’s music booker of nearly two decades. And this came less than a year after the organization failed to find funding for the Fourth of July fireworks display it had produced since 1988. What exactly was happening to One Reel?

In an age saturated with summer festivals, from Sasquatch! to Bonnaroo, it’s easy to forget how far ahead of its time the city was when it launched the inaugural Bumbershoot in 1971. The city let One Reel take over the arts fest’s production in 1980, and the partnership worked so well that in 1995 a city council ordinance allowed One Reel to produce the festival in perpetuity.

One Reel’s Bumbershoot problem began in 2009, when three days of thunderstorms and sub-70-degree temps drove away crowds. Because Bumbershoot is not, according to One Reel interim executive director Heather Smith, a “destination festival,” as much as 50 percent of ticket sales come from walk-up patrons. In other words, inclement weather can be disastrous. After dipping into the red again the following year, One Reel racked up more than $1 million in debt. But the ship righted in 2011, made money in 2012, and Bumbershoot 2013 turned out to be the most financially successful incarnation of the festival to date, turning a more than $500,000 profit. “We were like, ‘Okay, if we have one more really good year, we’re gonna be back to normal and everything’s gonna be great,’ ” Porter says.

There was a legitimate chance that Bumbershoot 2015 would have been canceled.

Then came 2014. A Saturday storm hurt. So did moving the main stage to Memorial Stadium because of a potential KeyArena conflict with the Seattle Storm (to the tune of $300,000). Once again more than $1 million in debt, and with several vendors still unpaid months after the event, One Reel was in dire straits. And much of the issue stemmed from its lack of financial diversity. Bumbershoot hadn’t been the nonprofit’s major revenue generator in years. That title had gone to circus dinner theater Teatro ZinZanni. But in 2011 the organization’s board split the production company and cabaret into separate nonprofits. “When you have an entity that has two, three things that it does, and can do fairly well, that allows a lot of stability,” says Seattle Center director Robert Nellams. “If you cut that to one, now all the eggs are in one basket. One bad year, and you’re in spiral mode.”

One Reel found itself spiraling last winter. And as Nellams bluntly puts it, if One Reel wasn’t able to find money, “Bumbershoot as we have known it probably wasn’t going to exist anymore.” Seattle Center saw the issues were serious, and Nellams investigated potential options: “Do we need to sever our relationship with One Reel? Do we take a year off? Do we do a smaller festival that we produce in house or in partnership with a smaller promoter? Really all options were on the table at that point.”

Ultimately Los Angeles–based event promotion powerhouse AEG Live swooped in last winter, assuming One Reel’s debts and entering into a new, five-year deal with the city and Seattle Center to produce Bumbershoot. The company behind Coachella was familiar with the festival, having served in a secondary production role between 2007 and 2009, but this time the power had shifted. “The difference between this partnership and the one years earlier was One Reel was in no position of leverage,” says Porter. “Before, it was a financially healthy company. This time, they had to bow down to the way AEG wanted to do things in order to get the deal done.”

And changes came swiftly. Executive director Jon Stone was forced out, Porter left, and AEG decided not to retain longtime independent comedy booker Lisa Leingang. And One Reel was relegated to handling the nonmusic arts and local comedy programming. The show will go on this Labor Day, and Nellams is already optimistically looking to future incarnations that could incorporate the symphony, ballet, and opera. But times are changing for Bumbershoot. For One Reel—once the king of Seattle summer events—time may already be up.

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