How to run a film festival

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Cinema: check. Film: check. Audience: check. It sounds so easy. But don’t be fooled. David Jenkins meets Alison Poltock, the woman behind the East End Film Festival, to discover her manifesto for creating the perfect film festival

Each year there are more than 60 film festivals at cinemas across London. The London Film Festival every October is the biggest, but each week, somewhere in the city, there are programmers toiling away on other, smaller events, from the London Short Film Festival in January to the Jewish Film Festival in November. This week alone, Londoners can enjoy the London Independent Film Festival, the Italian Film Festival and the East End Film Festival. But what makes a festival successful? More than that, what even makes it happen? We asked Alison Poltock, artistic director of the East End Film Festival, to give us her tips on creating the perfect festival.

1. Be original

‘Before I came on board, I could see there was scope for mixing film with the other arts and using new venues. For this kind of festival to work, you’ve got to vary the experience as much as you can. This year, we’re showing a film about East End photography in ten different pubs.’

2. Serve your audience

‘Don’t try to fit the festival around your own desires. I love the idea that our programme is not dictated by big-budget films, but by filmmaking and films that reflect the communities of East London. On top of that, this whole area has so many creative artists, so, this festival fits in nicely with that too.’

3. Start early

‘We started working on this year’s festival in Cannes in 2009, less than a month after the last one wrapped. Berlin is a handy festival as it’s only three months before us, so we get some good films from there. The Black Nights festival in Tallinn, Estonia, in December is where I get lots of Iranian, Eastern European and Russian films.’

4. Embrace the public

‘This year we have a filmmakers centre on Hanbury Street near Brick Lane where people can talk to filmmakers. It’s a beautiful, state-of-the-art space, but it’s not a cinema. You’re not sitting in rows, sticking your hand up. You can be relaxed about asking questions.’

5. Use your budget wisely

‘When I started out, the fees we paid for screening a film were between €100 and €250. This year, I got asked for £2,500 for a single screening of a film…which never made it to the programme. It goes without saying that you make a loss, but we try to keep ticket prices down. It’s about being open to the community and pound-crunching all the way.’

6. Choose a bold retrospective

‘This year’s festival will focus on Russia’s Alexei Balabanov. Philip Ilson, who programmes the shorts and British films, is a huge fan of his 2007 film “Cargo 200”. I saw “Morphia” at Berlin in 2009 and loved it, but the London Film Festival got there first. Then we spoke to Sasha Spirchagova, who does our Russian programme, and she had contacts with the director.’

7. Go looking for your audience

‘We have a disparate programme, from South Asian and Eastern European films to new British features, and it doesn’t just appeal to one audience. Two years ago we screened a Polish film called “Ladies” before it came out in Poland. It was a smash hit, and we ended up selling out two 500-seat screenings. The audience was more than 90 per cent Polish. I got in contact with all the UK-based Polish magazines – Cooltura, Goniec, Polish Express – and did media partnerships with them all. We did Polish TV and online, so we covered absolutely everything. It was specific marketing, but it worked well.’

8. Celebrate promise as much as quality

‘If we’re being honest, one of the films we programmed a couple of years ago was the sort of thing the director could’ve worked on a little longer, but the raw energy and intent were there. I get excited by debuts because they’re often the vision of a single person.’

9. Be flexible when things go wrong

‘My big fear is guests cancelling at the last minute. Films will often arrive on they day they’re screened: 35mm prints cost a fortune, so for some smaller films there are only two copies in existence anywhere in the world. Last year there was a gaffe when one of the projectors went down. I gave the audience a free drink from the bar, which they were more than happy with.’

10. It’s not over till it’s over

‘When the festival ends, there’s lots and lots of wrapping up to do which is essential for the future of your festival. We’ll have to send all the prints back and I’ll write thank-you notes to everyone involved. Then, of course, you can have a big party.’The ninth East End Film Festival runs Apr 22-30.
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Author: Interview: David Jenkins


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