Programming Festivals: Clare Stewart - BFI

The 61st BFI London Film Festival 2017 is here! Back in February we spoke to the festival's director Clare Stewart on growing such a world renowned festival.

3 October 2017

Matimba: You're listening to the BFI NETWORK Podcast, with me, Matimba Kabalika. Welcome back, or if this is your first time listening, enjoy. In every episode we meet an interesting, insightful and all round gooden from the UK film industry. I normally buy them a coffee and sometimes bring them cake in exchange for all their wisdom. This year's London Film Festival tackling from the 4th to the 15th of October. In this episode, we speak to head of festivals at the BFI and festival director of the London Film Festival, Clare Stewart. We talked about her journey to this point and her love with cinema. It's brilliant to have you, Clare. Thank you so much for joining us. It would be really good because basically the whole podcast is for emerging film makers and I thought we'll come on to LFF, but to hear about you and where you started out, how did you even end up on this journey?
 
Clare: I studied cinema theory and film production at RMIT University in Melbourne. And basically, I came out of that course kind of, you know, completely steeped in this love of cinema. I grew up in a small country town without a cinema, so it really was a case of kind of being overwhelmed by it and discovering it when I was at university and my love of it when I was at university. And I came out of that course feeling very stuck about how do you match cinema theory and your understanding of cinema history to the, you know, hands on day to day elements of film creativity and production. So I decided that the only solution to that was that I needed to see more films and I started volunteering for the Melbourne Cinematheque, which at that time was one of the only places in Melbourne that was showing reps cinema once a week. And then ended up sort of volunteering for the Australian Film Institute and also created a magazine that I started publishing, that was commissioning new writers to write about the films that we were showing at the Cinematheque, and through that I was working in the AFI research department all the time and ended up getting a job, my sort of first paid job there. But at the same time, I was also volunteering on a public radio show called Film Bus Forecast which was the only sort of, you know, film specific radio show on at that time. So I then, you know, I kind of found this particular niche that I'm quite passionate about which is precisely that, connecting films and audiences.
 
Matimba: When you went into that, when you started the volunteering, did you start to think right, did you feel like you started to have the knows of where you were going or were you kind of in it and feeling your way?
 
Clare: I was very much feeling my way but I was also creating my own opportunities, which is something that I've done in both unpaid and paid work, if you like. That's an incredibly important approach when you're starting out because you don't get things handed to you. You shouldn't expect to get things handed to you. And you impress other people when you have that, I guess, that drive to kind of identify gaps and solutions to things.
 
Matimba: And so, can you talk about from then, your first kind of paid job, What's the gap between there and Sydney, how long was that?


Clare: Well, I've been in the programming sector for 20 years really and so, you know, the first sort of seven years of that was a combination of doing a number of those things simultaneously and volunteering on a number of those things even when I got paid work at the Australian Film Institute. And then I saw another opportunity which was the Queen's Trust in Australia, as it was then, had a fund for young people who had made some commitment to their community and so I was successful at winning this Queen's trust award, which was really this breakthrough moment for me in my career. Because that was a $10,000 award, which at that time was huge amount of money, doesn't sound like much now. I'd never left Australia, I designed a trip that took me to all these Moving Image centers and film festivals around the world, but the purpose of it was very specifically about the future. It was about we're in the mid-90s, things are changing. The way that film exhibition is gonna happen in the future we're gonna be looking at it on different screens, we're gonna be thinking about it differently and sure enough like a few years later, I got the first, you know, cinema programmer and then head of cinemas role at the Australian Centre for Moving Image when it opened doors.
 
So it was about also, I guess, like not only being interested in my field for my own personal development, but also hovering up and going, "Where is my field going and what kind of role can I take to, you know, progress that and be at the center of that and, you know, and feed into what that might look like."
 
Matimba: Can you talk, and you've kind of started touching on it, can you talk about the power of festivals for filmmakers.
 
Clare: So I guess what excites me about festivals is that their right at the intersection not only about, you know, how you connect films with audiences, but how you connect filmmakers with audiences as well and how you connect filmmakers with each other. And that to me is what is incredibly vital, not only for emerging talent, but actually for established talent as well. It's an environment where you can see exactly what your contemporaries are doing, you can make sure that you're up to date with new trends in cinema and you are one of the first people to be, you know, spotting new talent, but you can also network and be very connected to other filmmakers. And if your film is in a festival, then it's obviously a really significant platform in terms of taking that out to the world. It's a significant platform in terms of having your work recognised, whether that is by, you know, commissioners, whether it's by sales companies, whether it's by distributors or media, you know, the festival is structured in a way to help you make those kind of connections. So it's a very vital sort of space, I guess, for both professional development but also the development of your appreciation of your form.
 
Matimba: And I feel like you are brilliant at putting filmmakers at the heart of the festival. I feel like you really care about the work of filmmakers. So you'll go to these huge gala screenings and I feel that you're just as impassioned as if you go to the smallest screening. For emerging filmmakers that's an exciting thing, and coming to talk specifically about LFF and what you look for, and what is at the heart of the festival, what do you think defines LFF as a festival?
 
Clare: Well, I think the festival has had a long and very substantial history in terms of being, you know, a fantastic program that represents the best of world cinema annually and that was a great base to come into and to build from because it was already very well established and respected. And for me I think what we have done in the last kind of five years now is give a great deal of additional depth to that, in terms of both the program for the industry, the way that the program itself is actually structured in connecting with audiences. But we're also constantly thinking about how are we best positioning the films in the festival for their future life. Whether that is going into another platform, whether it's getting a distribution deal while they're with us in the festival we're custodians of. And also thinking about that as a continuum. So how the filmmaker who plays the short film with us this year maybe the filmmaker who returns to the festival in three years' time with their first feature. So how are we making their experiences as positive as it can be. You know, as a festival more broadly, one of our big focuses has also been on elevating the festival, both in terms of its international profile and its resonance with audiences in the UK.
 
And so we've developed a number of different strategies around both those core focuses if you like, that's really played itself out. Seeing films that we've been big champions of like "Moonlight," and "Manchester by the Sea," two films that we had the first screenings of that side of North America go on to such success in the award season as well as films that we're introducing to UK audiences for the first time. Like "La La Land," and "Arrival," and well, four out of five of the foreign language Oscars nominees for example, including the winner of The Salesman. So playing the international card in terms of the role that we take in positioning films in the award season window, but balancing that with great integrity across the diversity of the program. And also in the last two years, introducing a very strong focus on having a talking point at the festival making it a place where it's not only about seeing films, it's not only about doing business and networking, but it's also about thought leadership and championing the things that our industry needs to be thinking about right now. So strong women being the focus in the 2015 festival when we opened with “Suffragette” and had the Geena Davis symposium on the first day, and then in the 2016 festival opening with the “A United Kingdom” and having the Black Star symposium on the second day. And having a keynote address from David Oyelowo, that is still like the best thing I heard last year.
 
You know, and feeling like the world that we live in needs that right now as well. Not just our industry by the way.
 
Matimba: So true and I can totally attest that, you've got a lot going on in terms of huge stuff up here strategically and you know, you're elevating it and growing it. So I guess for you, how do you stay connected to that sense of discovery?
 
Clare: It's incredibly important. I mean, for me and for the whole programming team, discovery is always one of the great energising aspects of what you do. So you never wanna take that out of the equation, which means you have to make time for it because it takes time. And that does mean, you know, a lot of watching, obviously, in the case of festival selection, but it also means additional layering once you've got your program configured. I mean, for us to introduce the IWC bursary last year, which is for a first or second time British writer or director with a film in the festival, was a fantastic new initiative with a really handsome £50,000 bursary from IWC, with Hope Dickson Leach winning that in part for her work on “The Levelling” last year. From a programming perspective means that I am still committed to watching all of those first and second time British works in the festival. Regardless of where the other big picture activity of the festival might take me, I still have that commitment at the base of what I'm doing.
 
Personally, even outside of the festival for example, doing jury work for the BAFTA Outstanding British Debut jury, that also keeps me deeply connected to what is coming out, especially in the UK, in terms of new talent. And that talent being defined much more broadly for me as it always is as producers, writers, directors, as well as actors. So, you know, you just have to make time for that discovery, but from a programming standpoint, there is nothing more thrilling than putting on a screener that you know nothing about and you haven't heard of the film-maker, or anything about their background and it just blows you away. I mean, those are the moments that you kind of hanker for and that keep you completely on your toes and in that sort of space.
 
Matimba: Can you remember your last feeling of watching something amazing.
 
Clare: Well, I mean, a perfect example of that is "Moonlight." I mean, we'd been sure, I guess that we were tracking it, it was with a known kind of sales company, but when that film came in and we saw it and you know, the team and I sat in the screening room together and just went, what have we just seen you know. So that moment that crystallizing moment of like that is really, that's discovery, that's great magic. But I mean, you know, he's someone who's quite savvy within the industry and had structure around him. So, there's other mechanisms I would say, that we have in place from a programming standpoint. We have over 2,000 entries that come in through our open submissions every year and all of those films are watched and recommended for second viewings. And actually, a number of the key exciting moments are when those films make it through into the program and you know, they're really out of left field.
 
Matimba: In broad strokes where do you see the festival going? What's still to be conquered?
 
Clare: Well, we've had two periods of significant change in the last five years in terms of the BFI London Film Festival. In my first year, we did a significant overhaul of the program structure and reduced the festival to 12 days from 15 or 16 days. You know, started taking opening and closing night out to cinemas across the UK with the live cinecast. These were all sort of big new undertakings that we spent the next three years or so bedding in. A big challenge for the festival going forward is what's happening to cinemas in the UK because they're all renovating and getting smaller. You know, lots more auditoria but actually less auditoria that have got really big kind of festival feel capacity. So last year was another big moment for us when we undertook to build a new temporary cinema that had 800 seats at the embankment garden. And that had a terrific impact and showed that there's even more space for growth for the festival and we grew the audience by 18%. We're now reaching over 195,000 attendances in the context of both the London festival itself and the UK wide screenings.
 
And we also last year introduced a virtual festival screening for the first time. So we worked with Dog Woof on low and behold the Werner Herzog film to actually not only take that out to cinemas across the UK but to have a virtual premier online that people could tap into. So my sort of feeling about the future of the festival is that on the one hand we've got to tackle that and continue to tackle that issue of how do we continue to grow the numbers of the festival, grow the audience, be accessible to more and more people in an environment that's actually quite challenging and how are we taking advantage of all of the new technologies that there are to expand again the access to the festival for potentially people who are unable to you know, come to the cinema or who are actually further afield than London.
 
Matimba: No, that's not a small task.
 
Clare: Do that.
 
Matimba: But so exciting for filmmakers because how people feel about putting stuff into festivals, ‘it feels like a minefield’, so it’s great to know that the leadership of a festival, that is as prestigious as LFF, is just so connected and so caring about filmmakers is really amazing. So my final question, which I ask everyone who I interview, is if you could give a challenge to emerging filmmakers, if you could kind of throw down a gauntlet, if you could have a cup of coffee with the whole load of them and give them a challenge, what would it be?
 
Clare: Okay. I'm gonna take it back to what we were talking about before about my belief that you have to have immersed yourself in research and in understanding history of your form you know, like no artist who's successful in the sort of contemporary art world doesn't know exactly who's come before them and, you know, where they sit in the scheme of the art world or maybe some do but you know. So I mean, I set a challenge, I would set a challenge that kind of connects around that. So for example, you come to me with your script or your project, and I would want you to be able to tell me a key film from each decade that has influenced a certain way that you have approached the thinking about the scenes in your film.
 
Matimba: That is the best challenge we've had, Marie, is that not the best challenge we've had?
 
Marie: I agree.
 
Matimba: Yeah.
 
[crosstalk]
 
Matimba: You can’t mess about, it's gotta be a big one, you know? So you're gonna get so many letters now from people who are like, ‘dear Clare’. 
 
Matimba: There's more episodes and lots of content like this on the BFI NETWORK website, including funding, first features, and loads of other interviews. We'd also like to know what you think about this podcast, so why not tweet us @bfinetwork. The music you've heard is from Rory Dempsey. Thanks to Clare, producer Marie, and the BFI NETWORK team.