Norman Hill, who handles promotions for the video rental emporium Scarecrow Video, phoned his advertising representative at Cinema Seattle last week to confirm the store's regular support for the annual Seattle International Film Festival: $1,000 to sponsor one film at the fest and to buy an ad in the festival calendar. Instead, Hill learned that Scarecrow was no longer permitted to be festival sponsor (although they were free to buy ads in the program). In a deal cinched two weeks ago, Blockbuster Video, the huge Dallas-based chain owned by Viacom, had pledged $50,000 to become the exclusive video store sponsor of SIFF.

"We're hard-pressed to take this as anything other than a slap in the face," said Carl Tostevin, one of Scarecrow's two owners. Scarecrow's longtime support of the festival dates back years, and includes the co-sponsoring of visits by Peter Greenaway and Todd Haynes, free tape rentals to the SIFF staff, and use of Scarecrow's PAL-format video players. Scarecrow also promoted the festival through posters, in-store displays, and ads in their newsletter. "Before, we gave them a thousand dollars and services, as part of a package," said Scarecrow co-owner John Dauphiny. "Right now it seems it's no longer necessary to continue that package."

It's not just Scarecrow feeling worked over. Mark Vrieling, president of the three-store local chain Rain City Video, found out about the sponsorship last Wednesday. Rain City had previously teamed up with local video rental companies Madison Park Video, Video Isle, and Reckless Video to buy ads in the SIFF program and elsewhere. Like Scarecrow, they no longer plan to advertise in this year's SIFF. "We're certainly not going to support a festival doing an exclusive deal we're not included in," said Vrieling. He and Scarecrow's owners, along with representatives of other local stores, held a meeting last Friday "to figure out what our response should be," he said. "We're torn. I don't want to hurt them. What they've done over the years has been a good thing. But I firmly believe they've made a mistake."

For Darryl Macdonald, head of Cinema Seattle, the non-profit organization that puts on SIFF, going with Blockbuster was a no-brainer. "We lost money last year, and we lost a $40,000 sponsorship--a two-year commitment from Sidewalk that they canceled after the first year." Blockbuster's $50,000 is a large chunk of money for an organization with an annual budget of just under a million dollars, and is easily Cinema Seattle's biggest cash sponsorship. Macdonald portrays the sponsorship as the sort that results in more independence, not less. Cash grants "maintain our financial independence, allow us to present the films that are only going to attract 50 a hundred viewers, allow us to show the archetypical Lithuanian documentary," he said.

As for the way Scarecrow found out, Macdonald says, "We certainly don't feel good about that." But he disputes Scarecrow's characterization of the added benefits of Cinema Seattle's long association with Scarecrow, claiming the favors flowed both ways. According to Macdonald, Scarecrow received benefits generally offered to sponsors on the $7,000 level--including sponsorship of one film screening, free passes, a two-color ad valued at $825, and banner placement at SIFF theaters--for only $1,000. "We did not give those kinds of values to any other sponsors. [Because we have had a long relationship] we tried to be more than fair. We liked and like and value our relationship."

But this sounds like the beginning of a breakup to me.