THE organiser of the Henley International Film Festival is living abroad after the cancelled event gave rise to claims for debts and out-of-pocket expenses totalling thousands of pounds.
The event allegedly owes money to the town council as well as staff, exhibitors and people who bought tickets to the second festival, which was postponed and then cancelled.
Many of those affected who tried to claim their money back say they did not receive responses to emails sent to the organiser Richard Truter, who has now left Henley.
The Standard tracked him down to Ghana and he apologised, claiming the festival had left him bankrupt and homeless.
Thousands of people were expected to attend the food-themed event in Mill Meadows in April with films including Breakfast At Tiffany’s and Fried Green Tomatoes due to be screened in an inflatable tent and “street food” served by more than 50 international food vendors.
The festival was called off three days beforehand due to bad weather.
It had already been postponed from November after Mr Truter said he needed more time to promote it in order to sell tickets.
The event owes Henley Town Council £500, which Mr Truter had agreed to pay as a cancellation charge for the use of Mill Meadows.
Two close aides who worked with him on the inaugural festival in 2010 are claiming they are owed £7,000.
Town clerk Mike Kennedy said: “We didn’t get a penny. We wrote to him and said we’ve undertaken all this work, officer time and preparing legal documents, which was all aborted.
“We had a number of site meetings which involved at least four council officers as well as councillors giving up their time.
“It was also a licensing obligation for us to alert neighbours to the event so there were costs in sending out letters. We felt justified in levying a charge for that and £500 is not an unreasonable amount, which Mr Truter accepted before it took place.
“Needless to say, like others, we haven’t been paid. We’ve chased him but stopped short of issuing county court summons. There’s no point in carrying extra costs for a debt we’re not going to receive.”
Councillors had agreed to lease the land for the festival despite concerns that the ground might be too wet in April.
Mr Truter said he wanted to use Mill Meadows because of its proximity to the town centre.
The council still holds a deposit cheque of £1,000 from Mr Truter that has not been cashed because it was only to cover any damage caused to Mill Meadows.
Traders are also still waiting on refunds for pre-paid rent charges.
Food vendor Amy Hemmings said she was owed £800, adding: “The loss nearly folded us. The money was a deposit for the pitch, not to help fund the festival.
“We have attempted to contact him probably more than 20 times by phone and email.”
Charlie Keet, of Notso Sushi, said he was owed £1,000 for pitch fees.
He said: “I have sent multiple emails to Mr Truter and colleagues and had no response. I will be collecting my emails from the festival organisers and taking my claim to court.”
Mr Truter sent traders a blanket email on July 15 following the festival’s cancellation, apologising for the delay in responding and saying he had been unsuccessful in claiming on his insurance policy.
He said the festival had received £29,000 in pitch fees and sponsorship to cover administration costs, booking fees, licence fees, planning and logistics costs, permits, advertising, PR and marketing. The balance would have come from ticket sales.
The email said: “Subsequently, we have been forced to close and lay off the staff involved until we can raise further funds to repay the vendors and the sponsors as well as raising the funds to host the event at a later date.
“We will continue our commitment to repay the loss in pitch fees to our vendors. However, until we are in a position to do so we ask for your patience. We are seeking all avenues to help fund the shortfalls.
“On a personal note, I am very aware of the frustration and anger this has caused. Unfortunately, I had no control over the outcome and I personally apologise to each and every one of you who has lost money as a result.
“I do know the feeling very well indeed. Our event only happens once a year and it is not as if we have a monthly turnover to recoup funding.”
Henning Marstrand, who owns London-based Taco Truck and is owed £450, said the email from Mr Truter made him feel more uneasy.
“It was really impersonal,” he said. “The reasons he gave sounded genuine but I felt like it was a way of giving himself time rather than trying to help us.
“It didn’t induce any confidence. I found him on Facebook and sent him a gentle private message and the next day the account had vanished.”
Mr Marstrand said he also lost £150 worth of fresh stock due to the cancellation.
Fairfax Hall, co-founder of London distillery Sipsmith, is waiting to be refunded more than £500 for pitch fees.
He said: “We’re a small company and rely on these kinds of events to spread the word about the brand.
“In that respect this is a double blow — not having the event and the opportunity to show people how great our spirits taste, and losing all the stand fees.
“What I don’t understand is where the money has actually been used. I want clarity that the money was spent with third parties in good faith in advance on non-refundable costs related to the show. I’ve asked him for this but received no response.”
Katherine Locke, of Dorset-based Jalopy Pizza, said she had received no response to her claim for £450 and called her treatment “very shabby”.
Sponsors, including insurance firm Towergate, of Duke Street, Henley, and creative marketing company Imagine, of Hart Street, Henley, have also not been repaid money given before the event.
Imagine owner Peter Relph, who gave £500, said: “We couldn’t get any definitive information and nothing seemed to be very positive about the whole thing.”
TV presenter Richard Johnson, who founded Street Food Movement and was due to give cookery demonstrations at the festival, refused to be there unless he was paid in advance due to the late postponement of the event in November.
He said: “I had gone to a lot of trouble to promote it and done a lot of radio appearances and work on Twitter and Facebook.
“I only heard it had been cancelled from one of the traders at the last minute.
“It sounded like a good enough idea but it needed money and a person with vision who was prepared to invest.
“That was probably the problem because he needed more financial nous than he actually had.”
Mr Truter told the Standard he had not been able to refund everyone involved because he had no weather insurance cover. He said: “Although the majority of ticket holders had been repaid within seven days of notice, there are still some who have not received refunds. I do apologise for this.
“However, I do not have the financial means to repay these at this moment. The same applies to the council’s outstanding rental amount and other outstanding debts incurred, although these amounts are fairly small in comparison.
“The situation has become so bad that I have personally become bankrupt, homeless and lost all my possessions as a result.
“I will endeavour to find means of repayment but until I find myself in a position to do so I simply can’t.
“The festival was something that so many of us believed in. From its inception in 2009, many people have worked incredibly hard on it but it seems finances have again destroyed our hopes.”
Mr Truter said that more than 200 events in the South-East were cancelled in that April week and he believed it would have been more financially damaging for the vendors to arrive to a washout.
“I made it very clear to all participants that we were not covered for weather cancellation and it was unlikely the insurer would cover ours or their costs,” he said.
“However, they have insurance themselves and should consider their option to claim.
“As an annual event, we only have one chance to recover the investment, which is unlike many of the participants as they secure venues for trade all year round.”
Mr Truter said he was forced to shut down social media pages and change his telephone number after receiving a number of angry messages demanding repayment.
He added that he had not given up hope of reviving the festival, saying: “Our intention has always been that of making the festival a bigger and better event each year.
“I have never had any financial gain from it whatsoever. We have worked on shoestring budgets with no or little help from major sponsors, grants or the council. It is not public money that we use.
“It saddens me that people are under the impression that this was a scam to gain money.
“For me, those involved and for those who have supported the film festival, I can clearly state this as an untruth.
“We have all struggled over the years to get this event supported with very little funding. It is a shame it has come to this.”
Mr Truter set up a non-profitable organisation called THE-HIFF as part of the festival’s legacy project.
It was designed to support charity through film projects and supplied 80 per cent of funding for a documentary film made for the Chiltern Centre for disabled children.
The company was dissolved in 2011 after receiving little ongoing support for more projects.
Mr Truter, who says he is working for a charity in Ghana, added: “We have helped to make community projects happen through film and helped making local charity films from our own pockets with very little support from the local community.
“For us to be slated like we are is unfair.”