Uri Aviv is the General Director of Icon TLV, The Israeli International SF Festival.
Hi Uri! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first become acquainted with science fiction?
Science Fiction and I go way back… I was very enthusiastic from a very early age with space and astronomy, an enthusiasm that was approved and encouraged by my parents and was greatly amplified when I watched with great attention the original series of STAR TREK which aired in reruns in my early childhood, mid-1980’s, on Israeli television. Then came STAR WARS and TNG, B5 and that was it, my fate had been sealed.
How did you first become involved with IconTLV?
I’m one of the founders of Icon and have been either directly managing the event or on its management board since its inception back in 1998.
I got into “SF-activism” 2-3 years prior to that, with the founding of two Israeli fan clubs which were the first to organize and operate small gatherings and conventions (I was an early member and activist of one and one of the founders of the other…). Icon was to be our first big national event, unifying the different streams of fandom that were already emerging (and even bickering with one another, back then it was mostly literature vs. media – AKA Star Trek and B5 fandom – you can imagine which side I took…) and producing a science fiction celebration in the visage of widely-popular events on the international arena, missing from our local stomping grounds.
Could you expound more on what it is you do as General Director?
Well, the general director position is akin to a company’s CEO. My duties are budget, finance, strategic relationships, hiring of professional staff, recruitment of volunteer staff and work, operational management of the staff and high-level content and programming. Here’s some detail on each of these responsibilities:
My first and foremost duty is a balanced budget. It means managing the festival’s finance, its income and expenses, and generally its monetary commitments, and of course always keep working on managing the current revenue stream and expanding it – with more activity, further public support, more corporate sponsorships, etc.
As general director I also manage the festival’s strategic partnerships and relationships, both with organizations and with persons such as possible international guests.
I also manage the festival organizational structure and hire and recruit the top tier festival staff – both hired professionals and volunteer staff, and I manage and coordinate their work.
Last but not least, I’m the senior artistic director. All major content projects go through me, and I handle the programming for the festival itself.
How did the convention get its name, IconTLV?
We started back in 1998 as Icon, which was short for “Israeli Convention”, but worked as a word on-its-own. Over the past few years the festival has expanded with several off-festival events during the year, as well as events during the festival in other venues outside of Tel-Aviv. We’re also expanding our international presence and relationships. With that in mind we chose to refresh our name to “IconTLV” this year, which hints at our international inclination along with keeping us rooted in Tel-Aviv (TLV), the Israeli cultural capital.
For readers who’ve never attended the con, could you tell us more about IconTLV?
IconTLV is the national SF event in Israel, obviously by-far the largest and the only international one (there are other SF events in Israel, local gatherings and small conventions of a few tens to 200-300 attendees).
The general audience is younger than it is in lit-fandom conventions elsewhere, and its audience more closely resembles media / comics / role-playing conventions as well as genre film festival audiences around the world, mostly 15-35 y/o. we’re also proud at being relatively heterogeneous, with a 55 / 45 male / female ratio. Roughly 5000-7000 people attend the festival daily, and the festival is 5-7 days long (dependant on the year) – it is not a convention so there’s no membership, visitors come by to partake in the festival atmosphere and purchase tickets per event they want to attend – film, panel, lecture, performance, workshop, etc.
IconTLV takes place in Tel-Aviv, Israel’s main city when it comes to culture, entertainment, art, fine-dining, night-life and anything else a tourist can think of. it’s also a beach town, with the Mediterranean a 2-10 minute walk from most hotels, and it has a lot of history, as Jaffa, the oldest city in the world, is a Tel-Aviv district.
The main festival venue is the Tel-Aviv cinematheque and its halls house film screenings, lectures and panels, music and theater performances and anything else we conjure up for the festival. The cinematheque is in the heart of Tel-Aviv where restaurants as well as bars, pubs and clubs, abound. The street just next to the cinematheque is one of the “culinary streets” of Tel-Aviv, with a string of fabulous restaurants, tapas bars, sushi places, a beer house and more…
Israel is geographically a small country, and thus the festival experience is lacking one major aspect in international conventions – a hotel – unnecessary for local visitors. Some visitors from other Israeli cities take a vacation in Tel-Aviv for a few days, but most just visit the festival during its opening hours and go to sleep at home. We do take care of visitors from abroad and make arrangements with special rates in nearby hotels. Being a small country though, it is quite easy to get from Tel-Aviv to most of Israel’s tourist attractions (Tel-Aviv is centrally located) – most of them not more than a 1-2 hour drive (for instance, Jerusalem is a 45-50 min. drive from Tel-Aviv).
With regards to content, IconTLV is tremendously diverse, housing both an international film festival, a literary conference, video-gaming and role-playing, a fandom / comics convention, children’s events and more…
The international visitor would obviously find that most of our lecture events are in Hebrew, but the films as well as key program items with international guest speakers are in English or in the case of foreign film, with English subtitles.
Speaking of international guests, we try and host each year a number of guests in the various fields we exhibit. We started with only a literature GoH back in 2003 (we’ve hosted Orson Scott Card, Guy Gavriel Kay, Tim Powers, Neil Gaiman, Carol Berg and Robert Brust since) but have expended as of 2005 to hosting film professionals (such as French director Marc Caro and the artistic director and production designer Christian Lorenz Scheurer, and many others), comics creators (such as Bill Willingham, though obviously Neil Gaiman can be marked under that category as well), and we hope to extend our invitation to academics and other professionals in the field in the future (festival and convention directors and organizers, journalists and bloggers, etc).
Did IconTLV always start out as a festival circuit–a combination of film, literary, and fan convention?
Yes and no.
Albeit being perceived locally as “the national fan convention”, Icon has been from its inception an amalgam, not frequently seen elsewhere in the world, as both a literature and media convention hosted in a cinematheque institute, a venue majorly dedicated to cinema.
From the get-go Icon has had a literary track of events (events = mostly 1-2 hour lectures, and the occasional panel discussion), a fandom-oriented track of events (dealing with TV fandom, mostly Star Trek and B5, as well as some comics, anime and the such), some science & technology lectures integrated in both literary and fandom tracks, TV-episode screenings (the DS9 and Voyager season and series finale and the B5 TV films were the major hits of the first Icon festivals) and a few classic film screening.
Doing things, bigger, better and more professionally each year got us to change over time, arrange, organize and do things differently from year to year. Also, the world has changed – TV-episode screenings were becoming a less and less dependable source of income, and the big fandom phenomena that engulfed Star Trek and Babylon 5 (sadly, there was never a huge STAR WARS following in Israel), and later on could be seen around Buffy just vanished and with no immediate replacement.
I initiated the film section as more than just “a few classics” as a counter to the process I just mentioned, seeing something (a film section) that might arouse the interest of the previous audience of media fan (and being a TV and film enthusiast myself). In 2005 I already marketed the section as an international film festival, and with good reason – with our international selection of more than 20 films and a director and film-producer in attendance (this past 2010 festival we’ve screened more than 100 films and had 8 directors present).
The literary track took a different evolution towards a more professional approach – the inclusion of a literary international GoH, our deep devotion to the development of local Israeli genre authorship and its presentation and acknowledgement and our desire for SF to be included in the general cultural, critical and academic discourse in Israel – these goals all resulted in a more professional stream of events – not only in literature but lectures and panels in all the festivals’ fields (cinema, comics ,science and tech and even role-playing) and in hosting major Israeli public figures for talks and lectures.
How did IconTLV manage to get the support of its fans as as well as the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Israeli Ministry of Culture?
We have a wonderful audience that keeps on coming back year after year. However, I insist we constantly innovate and rejuvenate our program, both adapt to the times and try and attract new audiences. That’s a challenge with any audience – which comes back year after year and is usually apprehensive of changes, more so with fans who are much more “creatures of habit” and even more so with sci-fi fans, which have a long list of specific expectations when it comes to their fandom, and are a statistical anomaly when it comes to OCD. The changes over the years have sometimes been controversial, but we remain resolute that in order for us to be in the center stage of Israeli cultural life we have to keep on changing and adapting to the times and always attract new audiences.
As for the governmental support, I can only cite hard work, perseverance and presenting results in both quality and quantity over the years. Attitude towards SF has changed in Israel over the years, some of it due to the work we’ve done at Icon, and that had permeated into our relationships with those governmental ministries, which started very cautiously, and now they are among our most proud and virile supporters.
What are the challenges in running IconTLV? The rewards?
The challenges are in each and every aspect of the project, the rewards as can be expected are few and far between, but the major reward is simplistic and obvious – doing something unique that and enjoyable and having thousands of people participate, have fun and be inspired.
It’s a challenge to recruit funding for the festival. Even with the great strides we’ve made in Israel, even when our list of supporters include governmental ministries, the Tel-Aviv municipality, the Tel-Aviv University and Google, there are still prejudices to overcome when approaching new sponsors.
The integration of the different content streams is very demanding. The need to delve deep in order for the content to be challenging and inspiring, but on the other hand making it available and inviting for a wide audience can be opposite directions – but they cannot be opposite, but have to work together harmoniously and synergetically. Add to that the constant struggle against stagnation, to renew and refresh as opposed to doing “what we did last year, only better” – all are challenging struggles.
The extremely limited budget makes for an extremely challenging production on all fronts. The different programs have completely different production needs. It’s difficult enough to organize a quality film festival, a quality comics convention, fandom convention, role-playing convention, expo, children’s performances etc… to do all at once, is insanely difficult, and the limited budget that we have makes it all the much harder. Professionals are expensive, and working with volunteers is doubly complicated – aspiring for perfection when working with professionals is hard enough, aspiring to do that while working mostly on a volunteer basis, adds another level of complexity.
All in all, you might say that producing Icon is a handful…
Each day of work on the festival, is a day I learn. I work with an amazing group of people, each an expert on 47 different issues. I get to meet and discuss (well, I try and keep up) history and mythology, modern physics, astrophysics and nanotechnology, film critique, comics, role-playing games etc.. all with top experts, researchers, scholars, artists and professionals in their respective fields.
The festival is a meeting place for different people and ideas, connections that would not have been made without it. Having dinner with a polish journalist, a French film-maker and an Israeli artist – seeing first hand those connections and exchanges being made, is a huge reward when working on the festival.
But the major reward for me personally is being able to take a good idea and make it happen – taking the best suggestions from the best content people we have – be it film to screen, speaker to host, guest from abroad or any other program or event suggested – and making it happen.
How do you decide on the programs to run, panels to host, guest of honor to invite, etc.?
The festival has programming committees for each of its sections. At the committee we decide on the theme the festival will take, as well as specific programs and content items we’d like to host – we try and stay fresh, respond to current events – both local and global – and assemble a program that’s relevant, refreshing and balanced.
Guests from abroad is something very much dependant on the willingness and availability of the guests themselves, and the funds we can recruit in order to host them. Whereas the standard program is something we work on about 4-8 months in advance, guest planning is 1-2 and sometimes even 3 years ahead.
How was the convention this year? What are the plans for next year?
Challenging and successful.
I’m proud to say we’ve given away the most money we’ve ever given out as awards and grants – a total of roughly 18’000 US$, of which ~4500 went as cash prizes in our short film sections of the film festival, ~9000 were split between two projects as development grants from the Israeli Film Fund for the development of SF full-length feature films, another ~500 in a translation contest and two round-trip tickets to the world video-game championships, worth ~2000 US$ each.
We’ve made huge leaps forwards in our lecture program, fully integrated a computer-gaming programming for the first time – and have learned a lot on how to do that better for next year.
We’ve had a minor row this year over the festival’s professional attitude and emphasis. One of the fan clubs that originally took part in founding the festival did not want to take part this year, and seceded to hold an independent hardcore-fans-only smaller communal event (it was Hebrew only and had no international presence in content or attendance, screened no films, with no major sponsors, supporters or contributors and attracted roughly ~300-400 visitors). Integrating both fans and the wider and eager audience is a challenge… I can gladly say that the new community-oriented event was successful as well, and we hope to either integrate the activity back into the festival or otherwise collaborate in the future.
Plans for next year are just now being made, we already have 3 wonderful possible author guests and our joint project with the Israeli Film Fund goes on and we’ll continue funding the development of SF full-length feature films. Other news will have to wait for the coming months…
Where can readers of this blog find out more info about IconTLV?