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On Film Festivals with Wendy Mitchell

We spoke to Wendy Mitchell about the ins and outs of film festivals. Wendy has been a film journalist for 20 years, whilst spending most of that time at Screen International. She now writes freelance for Screen, primarily about the Nordic film industry. She also consults for festivals, including the San Sebastian International Film, Zurich Film Festival, Rotterdam, CPH:DOX and Connext (Ghent).

Wendy Mitchell

Why are film festivals a must-do?

As you might guess, I am a big believer in the unique experience of going to film festivals. It’s all about seeing a great film, maybe one you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see in your local cinema, while being surrounded by other people who might love film just as much as you do. It’s the opposite feeling of watching a Netflix film on your laptop without company and distracted by Instagram.

What festival has been your favourite?

One screening that I remember distinctly was seeing Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy at a giant Pathe screen in Rotterdam – I didn’t know much about her work and I was blown away. It’s such a wonderfully intimate, nuanced film about the relationship between two old friends who go away together on a camping trip. It’s unhurried storytelling and I felt like the hundreds of people in that cinema were allowed to just soak up their camping trip with them.

Otherwise, I’ve been to some amazing festivals which have explored immersive experiences like watching Jaws at a public pool in Reykjavik to experiencing the world premiere of Andrea Arnold’s American Honey at the glorious Theatre Lumiere in Cannes. I do think it’s important to celebrate film festivals of all sizes; yes you have these big industry festivals launching the most important films of the year, but you also might have a neighbourhood film festival that’s showing a film in a community centre, which is just for local people to experience a film they might not otherwise have had the chance to see. Or just seeing an old film with a new crowd is fun – I got to see The Big Lebowski at my local town hall last year for instance. There are no two film festivals that are exactly alike and that’s a wonderful thing.

What is the key audience who visit film festivals?

The great thing about film festivals is that you often get industry experts who are there to buy and sell films, as well as people from all walks of life who want to see films as general audience members. A festival like Toronto is like that – they get these amazing, dedicated audiences. You’ll find an accountant or a bank clerk who takes the week off of work just to gorge themselves on films. And they might end up sitting next to a powerful studio executive.

What are the do’s and don’ts when visiting a festival?

Do take a risk seeing a film that might be something a bit different than what you might go see at the cinema on a Friday night. That’s the point of a festival. Take a chance on a film or filmmaker you might not have heard of before – the festival programmers have selected films and they are hoping their audiences will go on that journey with them. Also, another ‘do’ is to say hi to the people in the queue before the screening, or sitting next to you. You’re at a festival it should be festive! Have a drink, talk to people!

There is a so much work that goes on behind the scenes to make sure festivals run smoothly. There can be hundreds of people working behind the scenes, not to mention hundreds of volunteers. Give them a smile when you see them because festival works might only be getting a few hours of sleep each night during the festival period.

Don’ts? Don’t look at your phone during a screening (and really really never talk on your phone in the cinema) and don’t be disruptive to the other members of the audience.

How can you find out when film festivals are active around you?

A simple Google search will tell you festivals near you. Or have a glance at the comprehensive festivals directory that the British Council offers.

What are the most exciting film festivals to visit in the UK?

The big ones are the BFI London Film Festival in October and the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June – both play great British films as well as some of the top festival hits from around the globe. But also keep an eye out for festivals in Glasgow, Belfast, Leeds and other cities. And look out for smaller or more niche events – if you like horror films check out Fright Fest, for short film lovers try Encounters in Bristol, doc lovers should head to Sheffield Doc/Fest. And the smallest, most local film festival might be great fun with your neighbours.

What are some of your favourite festivals in Europe?

I love Locarno with its Piazza Grande screenings – 8,000 people sitting together outside on a warm night eating gelato and watching great cinema. A festival called Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic is also a summer highlight, they get industry guests mingling with cinephile backpackers. Cannes is an obvious one for the film industry and a lot of glamour on the red carpet (and they will debut some of the top films of the year). Venice is also an amazing experience – quite calm compared to Cannes but with that glamour and Oscar-level films. San Sebastian is so, so amazing – great films, great audiences, and oh-my-god-the-food. Rotterdam is also wonderful for more challenging films and its overlaps with the art world.

What’s the best film festival party you’ve ever been to?

There was a legendary party at Cannes 2011 that I was very lucky to be invited to. It was a launch party for a new company called Red Granite that had ridiculous amounts of money to splash on a starry party. They booked Kanye West to play a private concert on the beach. Jamie Foxx joined him on stage and you could see Leo DiCaprio dancing on a table. My friends and I ran into Kanye when he was leaving and he gave us a hug. Very surreal. Only in Cannes… But I’ve had just as amazing nights buying my own cheap drinks with fun filmmakers at smaller festivals, like going with some industry friends to the divey Hotsy Totsy bar in Ghent and drinking too much Belgian beer. Or hanging out the Filmhouse bar late nights during Edinburgh International Film Festival drinking too much Scottish beer, or the Pupp basement bar in Karlovy Vary, drinking too much Czech beer…can you see the trend here?

Why do some major films not play at film festivals?

Some films, especially more star-driven, more commercial ones, might not really need the buzz of a festival to start their runs. They will have a built-in audience without festivals. You don’t need to launch a Marvel film at a film festival, but then again sometimes you’ll get a big film like Solo: A Star Wars Story premiering at Cannes. For other films, the timing could be wrong to premiere at a major festival and they just prefer to go straight to cinemas.

What do you think the future of film festivals looks like?

I think the future of film festivals is going to be very interesting. Some people say film festivals are in danger of dying out, but I 100% disagree. Now that we’re all watching VOD platforms and TV on demand, I think getting off the sofa and going to a film festival is going to be even more essential. We need great must-attend experiences, content we don’t stumble upon every day online, interesting film curation that expands our minds, and to connect with other human beings. Film festivals do all of that so I think we’re going to crave that special atmosphere more and more. We can only stare at our little screens so much…

What do you think?

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