Raindance Film Festival founder Elliot Grove reveals how he started the festival and more!
The resplendent Raindance Film Festival has been running for an astonishing 25 years. Raindance has hosted the UK premieres of The Blair Witch Project, Down Terrace, Memento, Dead Man's Shoes and its training courses boast past students such as Sacha Baron Cohen, Nick Hornby, Christopher Nolan, Alison Owen, Guy Ritchie, Edgar Wright, Tom Hooper and Matthew Vaughn (just to name a few!). Here Mandy News sits down with Raindance founder Elliot Grove to talk about how it all began, the new ways of filmmaking – such as VR – and the future of Raindance Film Festival.
Elliot is also generously offering Mandy News readers the Raindance 99-Minute Film School free of charge – just enter the code RAINMANDY at the checkout.
Elliot, can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in the film industry?
I’ve been running Raindance since the early 1990s, when Princess Diana was still alive and John Major was Prime Minister of the Great Britain. I worked in movies as a scenic artist for some years, but stepped out of it for about nine years and fancied myself a property entrepreneur. Unfortunately, that coincided with the last big British recession and I went totally bust in 1991. I then spent the whole year feeling sorry for myself, until I decided to pick myself up by the proverbial boot straps. But I’d lost all my contacts – and I’m Canadian and was a tourist in London at the time – so I decided to start training courses: I’d bring over the great and the good from America to teach how to make movies.
My first intern in that first year – 1992 – was a guy called Edgar Wright; who’s done very well for himself [laughs]. A year later, people like Edgar were making movies for literally next to nothing. So I decided to start the film festival. Everyone thought it was mad – I probably was – but here we are, all these years later.
I also started the British Independent Film Awards in 1998 – 21 years ago – and that’s taken off, too.
I think the big thing that’s happened over the last quarter century is that back then you pretty much needed a million dollars/euros/pounds for a movie and you shot on 35mm. Now, anyone can shoot on their cell phone or a low cost digital camera. Post production and production costs are so much cheaper now than they were back then.
That’s all good, but the bad side is that because it’s so cheap to make movies, the marketplace is flooded with movies made by people learning. I’m trying to say politely they’re not very good. And the problem with a lot of people I know that make movies that aren’t very good is that they become discouraged and give up.
One of our creative prototypes, Mozart, started composing when he was 16 and did many, many works, but it’s not until a composition that he made when he was 23 that he got attention.
What was your vision for setting up Raindance? How did you go about doing it and how has it evolved since the first one?
The first training course happened because I happened to go back home – to Toronto – for Christmas. I picked up a leaflet by a guy called Dov Simens, who does something called “2-Day Film School” and I was intrigued by that. I called him up and booked him, and he showed up. The training sort of grew from there.
I started the film festival by just deciding one day to do it. I didn’t know how to get the films, so I bought a copy of that year’s Variety guide from Cannes, circled 100 films that I thought looked kind of cool and they all had fax numbers (this was before email existed).
At that time, I was sharing an office with a company that had one pound per page fax tariff. So I have a £100, write up a one-page press release and fax it 100 times. Seven of them showed up. I booked the cinema and bla-bla-bla. I don’t know if I would do that today [laughs] It was quite mad.
I think the reason I started the film festival was a) I love movies and b) I wanted to give people like my mate Edgar Wright back in the day, and people like Gareth Edwards, all these talented people that I was meeting through the training programme, a chance to show their films. Way back then there was only, really, two film festivals – the Edinburgh Film Festival and the London Film Festival.
The year I started Raindance, there were only something like eight films made; British films were such an anomaly, and considered so weird that if you submitted them to Edinburgh or London, they said “I don’t know what to do with this”. They’d put it in the ‘World Cinema’ strand, alongside the Mexican and Americans and everybody else. So I decided, initially, to start showcasing new British work. And then – I hate to say it – I found out something quite nasty about you British, which is that you’re snobs and when you didn’t see the big government logo, you probably did some research and found out, to your horror, that it’s being run by a Canadian, likely to steal your cheese. So you pretty much ignored it for the first five or six years.
Then, finally, when British filmmakers started realising it was kind of cool, that the films were screened right in London’s West End, in a very key week where there’s a lot of industry people in town – industry people with cheque books, acquisition people, sales agents, distributors – you flooded back. But by then, of course, we were an international film festival and became a lot harder to get into.
To give you an idea, we’re just on our programming deadline for the 2018 edition and we had 13,500 submissions from 129 countries: shorts, features, documentaries, VR projects, and music videos. So you’re competing with not just the best in Britain but the best all over the world. It’s a very different kettle of fish.
So VR would be one of the newer categories that you’ve added? When do you sit down to make decisions about potential new categories?
We started doing VR workshops five years ago and three years ago we started the VR Arcade, where we showcase work. This year we’re calling it The VR Gallery – immersive works of all descriptions, 360, gaming, AR and all that.
I think in the creative industries, whether you’re an author, dealing with online print, or a musician, dealing with Napster, or filmmakers dealing with online distribution, you have to keep innovating. You have to keep assessing the technology and the marketplace. And because you have a landlady, as I do, you have to figure out how to monetise it.
No one really knows where the visual mediums are going. The whole 360/AR/VR/XR technology is so new and fresh and are changing literally every single day. In the course of this conversation there will be some new thing coming up! How do you figure it out? How do you pay your landlady and exercise your creative vision? That’s really exciting and I think what we – the creative industry professionals – need to learn is to give ourselves the permission to make mistakes.
When someone said to Thomas Edison “Oh, you invented the lightbulb”, he replied “I failed at it 1,000 times before I made it”. I think it’s a very good thing for us to remember, as we struggle with the day-to-day of our creative projects.
Can you tell us anything about the upcoming festival? Anything we should be looking out for, in particular?
Well, one thing that’s changed over the last five or six years is the amount of documentaries. This year, out of our roughly 80-85 feature films, half are documentaries. And those documentaries tend to be social impact – dealing with climate change, with political strife, gun laws, public execution…a whole range of topics.
And also some quirky, light stories of people who’ve done just amazing things. People you’ve never heard of because the way our media is structured, they didn’t have quite the cache to attract the front page of one of the national newspapers. These stories are inspiring, and heart-warming, and also really make you re-think some of the standard opinions about the planet and the people you share it with.
We get told, time and time again, that we’re willing to show types of films that most other film festivals are not. I view that as a badge of honour, actually. We don’t show things simply to get noticed, we show things because we believe in them.
Often, the things we believe in – and the things that filmmakers with us believe in – fall outside of “normal/socially acceptable” entertainment, if I may put it that way.
Where do you see Raindance going from here? How do you see its evolution?
I get asked this question a lot and I never know how to answer. The answer I’ve given for years is that, first of all, I don’t see Raindance as being big and huge, I see it as being – if I can use the word – cool and boutique and showing exceptional work. Stuff that’s nothing like Hollywood but that needs to be discovered. That’s our role: we like to bring new films like we did with The Receptionist last year.
Moving forwards, Raindance will become even more a community of like-minded creators and like-minded audiences. Seeking entertainment – and I use the word ‘entertainment’ in its broadest sense – that challenges, inspires, excites and informs. When you have little hubs of people around the world, united by this one ideal, then that’s very, very exciting. It also means that the films and ideas and the works created can leap over national and cultural borders.
It means that Raindance started as a local disruptor, greatly hated by the film industry - there were only three people who liked what we were doing at the beginning, Mike Leigh, Ken Loach and Terry Gilliam (this year’s Auteur’s Award honouree). Because we’ve maintained this slightly “over the horizon”, I suppose we’re still the disruptor, although we have managed to get some industry recognition and, ever so much more slightly, financial security. We don’t have to work quite so much on finding where our next order of chips or beer is coming from.
And for yourself, Elliot, does Raindance take up all of your time now or are there some other things that you’re working on, that you might be able to tell us about?
Well, Raindance is a life’s work. In that sense, it’s always in my head. However, I still maintain a very modest drawing art studio at home and I’m also producing.
But I suppose all of those activities could form under the Raindance umbrella, because we seek to encourage creativity for anyone, at any stage of their life. For example, last night we had over 40 people here for a class and I popped my head in – young and old, grey and blonde, brunette [laughter] from all different nations and religions, united by one common goal of how to get that damned film out of your head onto paper, onto a screen and, then, in front of an audience.
This, by the way, is one of the big advantages of Mandy.com, if I can give you guys a pat for a bit. That’s what you’re doing: you’ve created a community and you’ve streamed it, so if I need a cinematographer or an actor or whatever, I can go and find those people, or offer my services, depending on what I do.
I think it’s fantastic that this platform is so secure and so robust that it works anywhere in the world.
What advice would you have for filmmakers or people wanting to get involved in the film industry? And even for someone thinking that their city deserves a film festival, like you originally thought, and looking to start one?
Well, if you want to make a film, you need to remember that the industry had created this mystique of how it’s so difficult and it isn’t. All you need is an idea for your film – a script, a camera and actors. Filmmaking is just exposing actors to your camera recorder; it’s that simple. And, like I said at the start, be prepared to make mistakes. Start with very modest things that you can do in an afternoon. And you’ll learn, real quick.
Once you get to larger projects, I think the best thing to do is create marketing; an A4 poster. People who buy films, normally, will have their first exposure to your film by looking at a poster. The same, if you go on Netflix or Amazon; you see that little matchbox-size image and if that’s not eye catching, if that doesn’t say the emotion of your film, people will just skip and go onto the next one. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way over my time here.
In terms of starting a film festival, it’s not easy. It will only work if you have a unique vision for the types of messagea you want from your films. When Raindance started we came up with the tag line “Discover. Be discovered.” Which embodies that our festival is about new talent. Also, in London we have Frightfest and London Sci-Fi Film Festival – they are very clear about what kinds of films go there.
If you can pull that off, and – whatever town or village you happen to be in – if you’re able to convince the local civic fathers and mothers to fund your festival, on the grounds that it makes your local area more culturally attractive, to then attract tourists who’d spend money in the restaurants and such, then maybe, maybe, maybe you have half a chance of succeeding past year one.
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