THE organisers of the Cockatoo Island Film Festival have more than their reputation at stake when the festival opens with the Hollywood drama The Master tonight.
The tough climate for arts sponsorship has meant the filmmaker couple Allanah Zitserman and Stavros Kazantzidis, who have run Hunter Valley's Dungog Film Festival for the past five years, have had to invest $500,000 of their own funds towards the $2 million running costs.
''I know it sounds crazy,'' said Zitserman. ''It's a lot of pressure.''
Kazantzidis said they had ''scraped and saved and sold some stuff'' to launch the event on the Sydney Harbour island, punting that more than 40,000 people would turn up to watch movies, concerts, talks, a yacht race and other activities over the next five days.
With the Sydney Harbour Federation Trust, NSW Mining and Hoyts as the festival's main sponsors, they have spent more than $800,000 creating three cinemas, two ''educational hubs'' and an outdoor concert venue.
More than 80 feature films and documentaries - ''the best of world cinema'' plus such mainstream titles as Tim Burton's animated Frankenweenie, Ben Lewin's drama The Sessions and the crime comedy Seven Psychopaths - will screen.
In what is styled as the country's largest competitive film festival, juries will decide the winners of the Golden Feather for best dramatic feature, documentary and short film.
''Stavros and I have always been risk takers,'' said Zitserman, who admitted that being five months' pregnant added to the pressure.
''That started with Stavros making [the 1996 film] Love and Other Catastrophes then we self-funded [the 2001 film] Russian Doll with a small group of investors. The reality is you've got to believe in what you're doing and put your money where your mouth is.''
In a promising sign, demand for tickets has meant The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson's drama about a World War II veteran falling under the influence of a cult leader, has expanded from two to three cinemas tonight. ''The reason Stav and I are putting out there on such a level is because we want to do something that's totally different and we want people to walk away feeling completely exhilarated by the experience,'' said Zitserman. ''Ticket sales are going really well.''
Festival-goers can catch a ferry to the island from King Street Wharf, Balmain West, Greenwich and Woolwich, or share water taxis.
And while unsettled weather would seem to add to their risks, Zitserman described it as ''predominantly an indoor festival'' that would be unaffected by rain.