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How Columbia and True/False flourish together

The people of Columbia and True/False have built a successful relationship that allows both festival and community to thrive

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Courtney Sommesi sells merchandise to customers

True/False volunteers like Courtney Sommesi lend a helping hand by selling merchandise.

Over its 15-year run, True/False has embedded itself into the culture and community of Columbia. Businesses and residents contribute sponsorships, donations and volunteer hours; in return, the festival boosts the city’s economic and cultural value.

Jeremy Brown, Ragtag Film Society’s executive director, sees the mutually beneficial nature of the relationship between Columbia and the festival. He says that True/False exists because of the city’s supportive community; the people and businesses like to rally around a cause that improves the quality of life for Columbia residents.

Supporting the fest

Thousands of volunteers, businesses and institutions in Columbia have followed Brown’s lead, contributing to a festival that creates an annual economic impact of millions. According to a 2018 study for the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, which looked at money spent by attendees, that amount was $2.19 million.

In 2004, T/F started with three venues and sold 4,200 tickets. Fifteen years later, the fest sold more than 50,000 tickets for eight venues. It attracts out-of-town visitors who stay in hotels and vacation rentals, eat and drink at local establishments and spend money in shops downtown.

True/False Managing Director Camellia Cosgray says the influx of people in downtown Columbia enriches the community-oriented aspect of the fest. “People are watching movies a lot, but they also want to spend a little time processing that,” Cosgray says. “So they wander around and stop at a restaurant or just stop at a store to shut off their brain a little bit, and I think that’s been really great for downtown. I think that is exactly what should happen.”

Local businesses are eager to partner with the fest because of its popularity, but many festival sponsorships run deeper than a logo on a website. Peter Hofherr, CEO at St. James Winery of St. James, Missouri, the exclusive wine sponsor of the festival, contributes in part because of his trips to the city to see films with his daughter. He also supports the fest’s values of sustainability and community involvement.

In response to the growing festival, the city quickly adapted. Hotels offered discounts to festivalgoers. Transportation officials altered bus routes to stop at screening venues. Businesses in The District offered retail spaces for screenings and artist lounges through partnerships.

Barbie Banks, Ragtag Cinema director, says, “True/False was sort of the first one doing such a large-scale festival in town, and so I think the city kind of grew up and learned a lot from True/False, and True/False learned a lot from the city on how to provide good services for it.”

Wade Tucker waits behind his fold-up table for customers

Among the many businesses that benefited from the 2018 True/False weekend was 11-year-old Wade Tucker's food stand outside his mom's store, Poppy.

Keepin’ it local

As True/False expands, emphasizing its local roots remains key. Stacey Woelfel, director of the Jonathan B. Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at MU, says True/False’s compact geography lends itself to a deeper integration between the city and the fest itself, an impossible task for renowned festivals in larger cities such as New York. The longest walk time between True/False venues is about 15 minutes. Brown says this ensures “a landscape where people are having shared experiences.”

He adds that filmmakers, artists and musicians are not withdrawn from their audiences during the celebration, which is essential to its collaborative nature. “We really encourage (the artists) to be out and about on the street, in coffee shops and bars so that the people attending the festival just run into them,” Brown says. “And they end up having a conversation about documentary film or installation art over a beer.”

Part of being a community-oriented festival is reaching out to those who might have never experienced True/False before. The fest works with Columbia’s Inclusive Excellence Organization to prioritize diversity in hiring staff and volunteers, as well as festival planning, which includes accessibility considerations.

The fest also helps grow the community by challenging Columbia natives and sponsors to think differently by bringing in film content and filmmakers with diverse perspectives. Dave Cover, the co-lead pastor at The Crossing church, a True/False sponsor, says that this has led to healthy intersectional conversations that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.

“What the festival has done, it’s made Columbia a more culturally aware city,” Cover says. “I would also like to think that it has made us less stuck in our echo chamber, whatever that echo chamber is.” 

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