Report: Galway Film Festival

Filmmaker Laoisa Sexton reports back from the festival's first online edition, where she enjoyed her film's world premiere from home

21 July 2020

I’d just self-imposed my own lockdown, and built a makeshift editing suite in our bedroom (the only suitable room as it had shutters, to shut out the world). We were editing my second short film, a black comedy called The Lucky Man. As soon as the picture was locked, we did the colour grade, while our sound designer worked on the sound-mix in Dublin. We were consumed, blinkers on, all the way to the finish line, trying not to pay attention to the dark ominous cloud looming outside the shutters. But just as we completed the film and our lockdown, the real lockdown began.

So, what now? Getting your film into a festival is hard; even short film teams have to employ sales agents to get their films into festivals, if there are even any festivals happening at the moment.

In the grand scheme of things, maybe getting your short film into a festival is not the biggest concern during a pandemic, but the little dreams are the ones that keep you going. Making shorts is not really about winning film festivals, but more a way to hone your craft. Having your film screen at a film festival in front of a live audience is an additional reward.

Film festivals serve as a platform for filmmakers to introduce their work to audiences. They enable people to come together and hear different voices, involve audiences and offer a chance to connect through sharing a unique experience. More importantly, they can help set the tone of the industry and stimulate important conversations. Last year for example, film festivals made a conscious effort (some more than others) to include more female-driven films, both in front of and behind the camera in their programs.

I’d always dreamed about getting a film into Galway Film Fleadh, even before I think I’d made a film. It’s renowned as the discovery place for new Irish film talent; the Fleadh is the Mecca for the Irish film community, and a mandatory annual pilgrimage for all cinephiles. The festival uses the Town Hall as its main venue, and there’s only one main street (Shop Street) that’s jam-packed full of authentic, traditional Irish pubs & musical haunts. It is a colourful west coast hybrid of traditional Irish and international flavour, and the perfect home for a film festival.

A few years ago, I was performing in a play at Town Hall. I remember standing on that stage, wondering if I would ever have a film here, and here I was finally “at the Fleadh” with my own film. Only now I wasn’t exactly standing on the steps of the Town Hall having the craic; I was watching from my bedroom, on the same monitor that I edited my short film on. I shifted the monitor to a different place to view - after all it was the film’s world premiere - small mercies, but I was grateful to be included in this wonderful program. My Dad had died right before the film was completed and I dedicated it to him. When I saw “For Dad” go up on the credits, I cried. It was grand.

This year, according to programmer Will Fitzgerald, Artistic Director of the festival, the team had pared back the program to 40 % of what it would normally be. 75 hours, 73 Irish & International shorts, 40 feature films, 35 live events, 20 countries, ten world premieres and three Oscar-qualifying categories. The festivals organisers have to be commended for pulling off this gargantuan task so smoothly. They put on a selection of fantastic screenings, events, and even a fun pitching session, which was cool to watch. I had never seen a pitching session as they kind of scare me.

They also kept up a steady, heavy presence on Twitter, and made introductions for every single feature with live post-screening Q&As with cast and crew, which was a great way of keeping spirits up and audiences connected with a festival feeling. Ticket sales were limited for each program to the capacity of the Town Hall so as to not exploit the filmmakers, which was brilliant, but you could view the films again by “renting” them at different times, which enabled lots of people to watch them who could not make the screening time.

There were plenty of industry talks included, and the same sentiment seemed to be running through a lot of them: the uncertainty surrounding the industry. With productions halted, the feeling is that people want to get back to work, but the costs of doing that are very high.

With social distancing currently enforced until October, it is hard for everyone to get a real sense of what festivals will look like going forward. One thing is certain: that the physical and theatrical selection of films will be smaller. Distributors are looking for ways to launch films out of festivals, and for ways to replace the fanfare that the festival might bring to a physical premiere. It’s crazy hard to get an authentic read from social media on how a film is received; is it just cast and crew or mates shouting about it within your own social media bubble?

It’s tough to get people to watch online without some form of interruption. The film is on your telly, people are talking, you might pause go back to it later. A communal experience isn’t really going to be replaced by social media chatter, and nothing can beat the power of a physical screening and the benefits of watching a film premiere with a live audience.

The industry-led talks and events largely focused on the creative ways in which the industry might be able to function in the current landscape. Some positive observations included how audiences now seem to be looking for more compelling entertainment, and so programming might look much more diverse.

In another session, producers discussed their lockdown statuses: some had films in development that they’d had to let go; some were glad of the time to put into funding applications, while others were looking for ways to shoot in accordance with COVID-19 safety guidelines. One of the main issues discussed was insurance, and how low budget films are having to pay a £5,000- 100,000 buy-out due to COVID-19, which is obviously way above what smaller budget films could afford. Insurance issues for productions will add further expenses, and nobody can actually film without this in place.

Some panels discussed the importance of creating short-form content and commissioning for the younger market, and how companies like YouTube and TikTok are sourcing talent from online. Broadcasters are now more likely to go for “snack-sized” content to appeal to the youth market, and are providing more opportunities for content creators as a result.

Discussions on diversity addressed how gatekeepers are now actively looking for people from diverse backgrounds, including in a geographic and socio-economic sense. There were also discussions on how producers are turning from theatrical to virtual models, and about the positive increase of VOD.

Something that seemed to resonate through each session was how the demand for content will continue to grow. There is no substitute for sitting in the dark with strangers watching a film, a place where phones are not allowed, you can’t fast forward or pause, you don’t get up and down, you sit and receive. So we will continue to tell stories.

Hats off the Galway Film Fleadh for making a bit of history and bringing everyone together, it did not feel downsized at all. It felt packed. It was nice to see some homegrown debuts of low budget features included like Dave Minogue’s Poster Boys and playwright Philip Doherty’s Redemption of a Rogue, which took away the prize for Best Feature. All were made on tight budgets and regional, with a local cast and crew. Perhaps that is the future, for now. I have always felt that the more specific you are, the more far reaching you can be. Thanks for a great Fleadh- Slán abhaile!