Interview with Elliot Grove founder of Raindance Film Festival – words Paul Risker
Elliot Grove is the founder of the Raindance Film Festival. Launched in 1993 the festival has grown into the largest independent film festival in Europe. In its storied history, Raindance has premiered films by heavyweight filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, 1994), Christopher Nolan (Memento, 2000) and Ben Wheatley (Down Terrace, 2009).
This year’s festival in collaboration with the Centre for Mexican Studies UNAM / King’s College London will host a masterclass with screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006)), while in a moment of history for the festival, British filmmaker Ken Loach will be awarded the first ever Raindance Auteur Award.
Outside of Raindance and The British Independent Film Awards that he launched in 1998, Grove has produced over 150 short films and five feature film, while his non-fiction publications include: Raindance Writers Lab (2008), 130 Projects to Get You into Filmmaking (2009) and Raindance Producers’ Lab: Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking (2013).
Our interview with Elliot Grove comes ahead of Raindance’s twenty-fourth edition, Grove reflected on the festivals evolution or in some cases lack of change, and the process by which the programme takes shape. He also discussed what has and continues to motivate the identity of independent cinema, the role digital platforms play in contemporary filmmaking and audience reception, as well as the need for film to not necessarily look to the future, but to also look to the past. Meanwhile on the subject of the future, he voiced his concerns of the repercussions of Brexit for creativity in the UK.
How would you contrast this the latest edition of Raindance to the first, and how do you personally look back over the journey of the festival as a whole?
Well it’s pretty much the same as it was way back in year one, with the exception that it has just gotten bigger with many, many more submissions. In the first few years we screened everything that was submitted, and this year we screened one in fifty or one in a hundred… I don’t know the stats. It’s hard to get into Raindance now and when I started it, I had some close friends that were filmmakers, and we just wanted to show the kinds of films that were made by us, and not by the big Hollywood studios. We also wanted to show the kinds of films that we personally admired and were entertained by, and that really hasn’t changed at all. And year after year, the filmmakers that have touched Raindance with their films seem to be making more and more entertaining films. I guess the way to maybe say it is that the quality of independent films we see here just keeps on skyrocketing. The storytelling abilities of filmmakers becomes better and also the topics undertaken to talk about becomes I think ever more extreme. This is simply because of the divide between what the ‘so-called’ film industry will finance, which becomes ever safer and more saccharine, and the ones that independent filmmakers do. So they’ll try and try, and try to make a documentary or feature film about a certain topic, that is just completely shut out of the mainstream industry, and so they’ll make it on their own. And of course how do they get it seen? This is where festivals like Raindance come up because those are exactly the sorts of films that we like to screen – films that are nothing like Hollywood, but are extreme topics, extreme filmmaking techniques and of course extremely entertaining. We have come to see this more and more over the years at Raindance, but that was really, if I may use these words without sounding too pompous, the founding principle.
Have the changes you’ve observed within independent cinema been solely in response to Hollywood and the mainstream, or have these changes been motivated by other factors?
The main hallmark, the main moment that completely changed independent cinema filmmaking was February 15 2005, because that was the date that the three co-founders of YouTube registered the URL YouTube.com. And with that the viewing patterns of how people accessed movies has completely changed, and of course now with Netflix and MUBI, and all these other platforms, online distribution has completely changed everything. So in the old days when I started Raindance you pretty much needed a million. You went and made a film (on film) and it was much easier to get into a cinema or distribution followed by a DVD, or in the day VHS distribution deal. You’d get your money back, pay back the investors and do it again. But those days are long gone now. The advent of digital technology – I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times – makes filmmaking accessible to anyone with a cell phone. People are making films like Tangerine (2015) and Searching for Sugarman (2012), where you can shoot films that are good enough to show on your cell phone, and it has democratised filmmaking, which is really good. But it has also flooded the marketplace with a lot of content that is quite frankly amateur and not the sorts of films that we would like to show. So the big change I suppose has been in distribution and in the way that people make films using the many, many different digital platforms.
On the subject of democratisation, film criticism through online media has also undergone this process. But as you indicate, when anyone can partake the price is a loss of quality control. So democracy within both filmmaking and film criticism is a double-edged blade, and what remains is the struggle to retain integrity and quality through the act of democratisation that is liable to exploitation.
It is true, and as you know our political and business leaders are trying to dumb us down because they don’t want people who ask awkward questions of political and economic decisions. So the true independent film operates out of those constraints, and says things that are daring and edgy. Often the filmmakers that make these films suffer terrible personal financial risks and exposure. These are the kinds of risks the film business simply will not undertake, meaning as I am sure you are aware the typical fare released week in, week out that has become so limp and insipid that we are taught to think is pretty good. And the reason we think it is pretty good is they spend millions on advertising as you know, and the really good stuff languishes in the corners of the Raindance Film Festival.
One filmmaker remarked to me when I asked her about a theatrical release that a DVD release would be a success for the film, and more films now are bypassing theatrical releases for staggered VOD and DVD releases. As we move away from traditional theatrical releases to these new modes of distribution, how is this likely to impact the reception of films?
Well I think it is well to learn from our colleagues in the music industry. Back in the day, a long time ago when I was a kid, bands would tour and then they’d get a record deal, and live off the record royalties if you like, a bit like theatrical distribution. But nowadays in music if you want to make it, you tour, you do the twenty seater, the forty seater, the fifty seater, the hundred seater, the five hundred seater, and then you sell your CDs and the t-shirts off the table at the back of the room. And a lot of filmmakers use the festival circuit in much the same way as our music colleagues do, touring the festivals and trying to whip up interest to get enough people to come to the web site to buy the digital download, or God bless for eight bucks or less the DVD at the table at the back of the festival. And it’s a lot harder work. But then of course even today as in music, one in a million or one in a thousand actually succeed and do well on the circuit that they then pop into the mainstream, and are able to enjoy the benefits of all the advertising marketing budget big labels will still spend on you if you are considered hot enough. But to me that’s the one thing I think we have to learn as filmmakers, and in that respect we seem to be a generation behind our music colleagues.
Film is of course the youngest of the art forms in comparison to music, literature and even photography. Could we not describe film as an art form still in its adolescence?
Yeah, I think that is a fair comment and there is so much to be learned. Then of course there is this new thing called VR, or 360VR, and no-one seems to know what’s going on with that – how filmmakers are tying in with the types of technology that you have in gaming, and how these things are overlapping. And how filmmakers are coming up with projects that access different markets – so called hybrid distribution or hybrid filmmaking where you have a live event with a film, with a concert or whatever. These are all things that no one really understands properly, and the other thing they call new, but this is as old as the hills. Back in Ancient Rome when you went to the Coliseum on a Saturday, before you even arrived you were met by minstrels dressed as characters from the show singing songs. So again, rather than looking to the future or wondering what the future is, we could look at the distant past to see what business models our forbearers successfully used.
Looking ahead to the upcoming edition of the festival, you mentioned that you are no longer screening every film entered. I assume there are any number of films you’d like to include, but inevitably compromise plays its part. Can you take us inside the mind of the programmer and the process by which the festival’s programme is arrived at?
Well first. above all else is story – does the film tell a story? And many of them don’t. Many of them are very prettily shot, beautifully edited and wonderfully acted, but there is no story. So when there is a story they get shortlisted and then we look at topics and also duplication – how many documentaries about plastic in the ocean can you have? We do have one called The Plastic Ocean for example, a brilliant documentary about the way we are destroying our seas. And then it is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
Raindance is unique in that our films come from all over the world. It’s very, very broad, and it’s not like FrightFest that just shows horror. We do have horror films. It’s not like Sci-Fi that just shows science-fiction. We have science-fiction, but we have films of every different kind of genre that you can imagine. So the programmers are working together for months. They started last November trying to fit the jigsaw puzzle together to live up to our mandate, which is basically two-fold: Are they entertaining films from a breadth of topics? And generally speaking most of our films are made by debut filmmakers – people on their first or second movie that are just trying to find their feet. The ones that we think are deserving are the ones that we include in the programme.
I enjoy speaking with first time or young filmmakers as they are at a unique point in their careers. But discussing the relationship of the film and the filmmaker, writer/director Rebecca Miller remarked to me: “If they are made honestly, all pieces of art are self-portraits of the person making them.” When you see the films and then meet these first or second time filmmakers, can you perceive a connection between the filmmaker and their film?
Well it’s really interesting. I guess the filmmakers I meet fall into two categories. There are the first that are very proud of themselves, and who have mainly dislocated their shoulders from slapping themselves on the back so often for how talented they are [laughs]. The other kind are the ones with true humility that have realised that even if they are the writer or director of the film, then they are a part of a much greater team, and they have gelled together and created something truly exciting. And of course those are the people I like to go out for a beer with [laughs].
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling (2015) she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” Those humble filmmakers you encounter are the types of filmmakers like Morley that are more likely to embrace the important role of the audience, and accept that the spectator is the author and that the film belongs to its audience.
I think that’s great. The goal of the filmmaker is to elicit emotion in an audience, and when the screen and audience are working in parallel and bouncing off each other, then it is magic, as I’m sure you know from the films you love and admire from the past.
And of course, in addition to founding Raindance you also founded The British Independent Film Awards.
The reason we started it was just to put a little gunpowder together on the table, and ignite it to do a little attention grabbing for the worlds eye to look upon the plethora of talent in the United Kingdom. It is truly amazing. There are so many British films that are doing so well overseas, but us British (I am Canadian, but I’ve lived here for ages) don’t seem to realise our own talent, and are much more ready to recognise talent from other nations. So that was the whole point of us doing those awards.
Why do you think the British find it so difficult to acknowledge their own talent?
There seems to be a bizarre and uniquely British allergy to success. So when it’s one of our own mates we all go: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I’m better” or something. Maybe it’s professional jealousy… Maybe it’s a conditioning because in the film world the advertising and marketing is so dominated by the Americans. I don’t know. But if you go to Hollywood, many, many of the top stars are British, who have fled this island in favour of more hospitable climes. It is a uniquely British thing.
While politics and other institutions create boundaries art is a unifying force. I was reading that Raindance has grown into an international festival over time and to close I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the importance of the openness of cinema on both a cultural and ideological level.
Well you and I both work in the creative industries, and I believe that artists of any genre, type, field, myself included should not be limited by nationalistic or political boundaries. There should be a free flow of ideas and people across borders, and cooperation, as with many creative projects it has been. This is what was so astounding with the Brexit vote on June 23 – that people in this nation decided they wanted to withdraw and become isolationist. I think this is the death now of any involving creative endeavour. And what makes that even more alarming as we move forward in the digital age, with the rise of robots replacing manual workers and so on, is that people will have so much more free time than they’ve had in the last generation. The creative industries will be the growth industry, and people can work, collaborate and grow in the creative industries, which rely on this open source flow of not just ideas but people, as they will move around. I feel very passionately about this.
The 24th Raindance Film Festival runs Wednesday 21 September – Sunday 2 October 2016. For more information or for tickets visit raindancefestival.org