Following a successful debut in 2016, Birmingham Film Festival (BFF) returns this month with an event that promises to be even bigger and better than before. More time, more screenings and new submissions categories are among the things that indie film fans can look forward to this year, with music videos and un-produced screenplays now getting a look in. Ahead of its return to the Mockingbird Cinema, Birmingham Review spoke to BFF co-founder and co-director Gary Rogers.
“We’ve got a mixture of music videos, shorts, features, documentaries, animation – you name it. There’s a bit of just about everything, really. We’ve also added an extra day to the festival this year, so now we’re running for four days as opposed to three. Last year we screened 80 films, so this year there’ll be about 100.”
“Although we accept all sorts of films, in terms of themes, I was saying recently that I’ve noticed a significant increase this year in films about mental illness this year, whether it’s general health issues or things like dementia, which is all very topical at the moment.”
Formed by a group of friends and colleagues working within Birmingham’s burgeoning filmmaking scene, the project began as something of a risky venture. Recognising a gap in the market, Rogers had been toying with the idea of a Birmingham Film Festival for some time before it eventually got off the ground. At the time, however, none of the trio responsible for turning it into a reality had much experience of organising an event of this kind.
“I’d been talking about doing a local film festival for a long time, and in my head it was only going to be quite a small affair. But while I was out shooting a film called Enter the Cage, I ended up mentioning it to the director and stunt coordinator Dean [Williams] and Kevin [McDonagh], and it just went from there. It seemed amazing to us that as the second city, Birmingham didn’t already have its own film festival. I went home and Googled the URLs just to check they were available and somehow even they hadn’t been snapped up, so we decided to go for it!”
Small-scale, themed festivals such as last month’s Screening Rights Film Festival do exist in Birmingham, of course, but the Birmingham Film Festival is unique in its approach and scale. The closest thing the city has is perhaps Flatpack Festival, but even that has a distinctly different remit.
“Flatpack work in a different way to us – they’re mobile so they move around between different venues, and they’re also like a self-contained little company, hiring out equipment and things like that. They do a lot of themed evenings and mainstream film screenings, whereas our screenings are 100% new, low budget, indie films, submitted directly by filmmakers. And when I say low budget, I think the biggest budget feature I’ve seen so far was made for about £160,000, which is nothing really.”
Happily, things seemed to fall quite quickly into place, thanks in large part to widespread support from the local film community. Some of this was down to the strong network of industry contacts that the organisers had built up over the years, but backing also came from more unexpected quarters.
“Sindy Campbell from Film Birmingham has been great. It was funny because she actually got in touch with us. Somebody had heard about us and asked her in a meeting what she thought about Birmingham Film Festival, and at the time she didn’t know anything about it. So she got in touch to find out what it was all about, and since then she’s been behind us 100%. We’ve also got [Peaky Blinders creator] Steven Knight as our official patron. Hopefully we’ll get him appearing this year – last year he was too busy but it would be great if he’s available this time.”
“We’ve had some support from local colleges too. Because I do a bit of work with Pauline Quirke Academy on Saturday mornings, they actually sponsored us last year, and this year we’ve been speaking to BOA and Birmingham University as well.”
“As far as the venue goes, we came straight to the Mockingbird, and they’ve really helped us out a lot. We did get in contact with some other cinemas in Birmingham, but most of them cost a fortune. This place was perfect for us – not only was it affordable, they’ve also been really sympathetic and keen to be part of what we’re doing. And I think it’s been good coverage for them as well; everybody who came last year said how much they loved the venue and the artistic nature of it.”
In consequence, the festival flourished, attracting huge numbers of submissions from diverse genres and countries around the world.
“For our first year we kind of had the philosophy of go big or go home, and it worked out really well. We ended up with 400 films submitted from 30+ countries, so it was really international in reach. We also organised a nice, big gala for the awards, which sold out really quickly. Last year there were 120 people at the awards, so this year we’ve gone even bigger and hired a venue that will seat up to 200.”
But as with any major undertaking, it hasn’t quite all been plain sailing, particularly since everything has been a learning curve for its creators. Along the way, there have been creases to iron out, and of course, there’s still some way to go before they’re likely to start attracting national attention.
“The first year was really scary to be honest, with it being our first time and having so many people submitting. We had people travelling in from overseas – there was even a guy from Israel who came over with his own film crew – and we were constantly worried in case things didn’t work. Mostly everything went fine, but there were some hiccups. There was one foreign language film that we decided to show which turned out not to have any subtitles on the version we tried to screen, so in the end we decided to move on and leave that one out.”
New features this year have also required new methods of planning and implementation. For example, the Birmingham Film Festival 2017 is accepting submissions of un-produced screenplays as well as finished films, and at the time of writing it wasn’t yet confirmed if or how these might be presented to the public. That said, things are settling into their own natural rhythm, with each director finding his own niche based on individual strengths and experience.
“I think we’ve all got a little area that we mostly look after, although we do cross over. Because I’m normally a cameraman and techie, I tend to look after a lot of the admin relating to submissions, so once we know which ones we’ve chosen, I’ll get in touch with them and chase the forms and copy, as well as sorting out the schedule for the day.”
“Dean’s [Williams] speciality is stunt work and fight choreography, and he’s very much a people person. He has lots of contacts and he’s been going around trying to get people on board, particularly celebrities. He’s also the one that’s sorted out the hotel and venue for the gala evening.”
“Kev [McDonagh] is similar in that he knows a lot of people, but he’s been mostly focusing on getting us funding and sponsorship. Obviously it’s all self-funded, so we’re really reliant on what we get from submissions and sales. But last year we did at least manage to cover the costs and still have a little bit left over, and this year we’ve got some big backers, including Birmingham Bullring, which is brilliant.”
Better still, delegation has also been possible this year, with the recruitment of more people to help out with assessing submissions and public promotion, as well as a growing number of volunteers signing up to help out at the event itself.
“This year we’ve got a guy called Mikey who runs Mikey’s Movie World giving us a lot of coverage. We’ve also been speaking to the local media company Think Jam, they’re really keen to get on board as well.”
“We’ve also now got a little group of people going through submissions and sort of flagging them and rating them before we watch them, whereas last year we just did all of that ourselves, which wasn’t easy. It sounds great watching 400 odd films, but wow it’s a killer when you’re actually doing it!”
“And we’ve got no shortage of volunteers. Most of them are media students but we do get people emailing us all the time and it’s getting to the stage where we can’t actually take everybody! It’s great that we’ve got so many people who want to help out, but of course you don’t want them just sitting around bored when they arrive.”
Emboldened by early success, Rogers and his collaborators are now ambitious for the future of the festival, already looking into possibilities for expansion and further diversifying the range of events on offer in years to come.
“Through my involvement in the indie film scene, I have worked with people operating on slightly higher budgets – around the £400-500,000 mark, which is big enough to have known actors in them. For example, I worked on a film last year called Milk and Honey which had people from The Bill and Emmerdale and Coronation Street in it. I think the next step is to start bringing in premieres of some of those higher end indie films, which means you’ll also get some of the stars coming in and raising the profile a bit.”
“One of the things we haven’t really managed to do so far is fit in Q&As. A lot of the filmmakers were asking us if they could do them after their screenings, but because time has been really tight in terms of showing everything we wanted to, even just having 20 minutes at the end of each one really eats into the schedule if you’re showing eight films in a day. So it’s been tricky, but we’ve been looking at the possibility of getting a dedicated networking space for meet and greets where filmmakers and audiences can interact.”
“On a similar note, we’d really like to put on extra events like workshops – on lighting and camera work and things like that. But again it’s all dependent on space, and renting extra space costs money. This year it will be fairly light on that side, but because we’re now in dialogue with the Bullring and they’re developing new spaces, it may be that we’ll be able to find a place for things like that next year.”
“Ultimately we’re aiming to make it a big deal in the vein of Sundance, Raindance and all those big festivals that people know – that’s where we want to be.”
Birmingham Film Festival runs at the Mockingbird Cinema from the 23rd to 26th November. For more on Birmingham Film Festival, visit www.birminghamfilmfestival.com
For more information about the Mockingbird Cinema, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.mockingbirdcinema.com