INTERVIEW WITH… J’AIMEE SKIPPON OF BYRON BAY FILM FESTIVAL
We are delighted to welcome J’aimee Skippon of Byron Bay Film Festival to the blog for her insights. The festival will be in its ninth year next March and there’s still time to submit to their LATE DEADLINE on FilmFreeway which is 23rd October. Let’s hear how the festival came about, and what preparation goes into a 10 day festival.
Tell us a bit about your job, and what you do…
As BBFF’s Festival Director like many others in home-grown Arts Orgs I wear many hats, both out of necessity and choice. Besides spearheading a growing team, I oversee programming and operations. My partner in life and business, Osvaldo (Ossie) Alfaro, is the festival’s Technical Director. Together we make a great team, as he’s got the technical prowess to keep us ahead of the game – and to help me make ideas happen. BBFF is Australia’s largest Regional Film Festival, we’re big dreamers and so the scale and scope of what we do is pretty huge, and a big task to manage. The Greater Byron Region is home to the highest concentration of filmmakers in Australia outside the metro areas of Sydney and Melbourne and we’re on a bit of a mission to highlight the film talent in our region and to also connect our local filmmakers with talented filmmakers from all around the world.
We hear you used to live in Covent Garden before moving to Australia, and then helped make BBFF happen! How has the festival progressed, and did the cinema culture in the UK influence you?
Byron Bay is renown world-wide for its natural beauty, alternative community and the quality of life that’s offered here. Although I was involved in the inaugural festival, BBFF06, it was very much behind the scenes. The first festival had been designed to purely be a showcase for the back catalogue of our local filmmakers. When I was asked to take on the role of Festival Manager in preparation for the 2007 festival I was hesitant, Ossie and I had been making short docs and playing with animation concepts – it was a bit of a crossroad for me. I met and saw BBFF’s patron Paul Cox (Man of Flowers, Molokai) at an off-season BBFF retrospective and was so inspired by what he had to say that I knew I had to get involved. We’ve been living here since 1998 and another driving factor for me was to create an event that helps re-enforce our sense of community and our collective values through the medium of film as Byron locals are always outnumbered by tourists, sometimes 5 to 1, and I saw BBFF as the vehicle to make that happen.
Ironically one of the reasons I moved to Byron was to escape living in a tourism-laden community. My parent’s worked in film and television, they came out to Australia from New York, had me here, moved on to New Zealand and then in the mid 70’s moved to London, settling in Covent Garden about 35 years ago. My love for independent, alternative and underground film was very much grown from having so much great film culture right at my doorstep. As a teen I spent a lot of time scouring City Limits for art-house film and film events, I guess with reflection I can see that part of the appeal was that it was an activity I could happily do solo, and particular films aside, London Cinemas that I think were of influence on me were the ICA and, in particular, the all-nighters at the Scala. As a 15 year old my folks were ok with me staying out all night for film, and so I spent as many Saturday Nights there as possible until the lure of nightclubs took over.
2015 sees the festival hitting the nine year mark, have you seen any noticeable changes in submissions, and audience, since the beginning?
The inaugural 2006 Festival screened 55 films – all Australian, and had about 90 submissions. We had a choice to make around where we took the 2007 festival and since Byron is such an International Community, and so well known Internationally it made perfect sense to widen our screening criteria and take in films from all around the world. We now receive about 1000 entries a year and the programme includes 225+ films, of which over two-thirds are World or Australian premieres, apart from one or two they’re all fresh to Byron. Our audience has grown substantially too – what began as a community event now attracts attendees from all around the world. We’ve worked really hard to make our festival relevant as an industry event and each year between 16% to 20% of our audience identifying themselves as filmmakers, students and Industry professionals. Byron Bay locals are a very eclectic, quirky and relaxed bunch of people, I mean we literally live in paradise, how could it be any different? One of the things the filmmakers consistently comment on is how warm and demonstrative our Audience is, that’s something that can’t be manufactured. Each year more and more filmmakers come with their film, we like to think our reputation for inclusivity and warm hospitality plays a part in that. BBFF2014 saw 87% of our sessions have at least one filmmaker in attendance. We’re starting to have filmmakers making films just so they can try to come back the next year.
Your festival lasts for an impressive 10 days, we can’t even begin to quantify how much work that is! When does the behind-the-scenes work for the festival start, and what’s the first job?
I think something that only other festival organisers understand is quite how much data-management goes on in a programme with over 220 films. Our festival just couldn’t happen without the volunteers who not only drive specific roles but those who are content to file manage and cut and paste until their right click finger has callouses. Each year we announce the next year’s date on our final night, after bumping out of the venue, we take a week or two off and then get moving on the preparation for the next year. I guess really the first job of the next festival is to assess how the last one went and what we can improve or build on. Like a good filmmaker we never rest on our laurels and we are constantly seeking to learn and grown.
What’s your advice to someone who gets a rejection from a festival?
I think the key for festival selection is to find the festival that’s a fit for your work – often this will be a festival that’s local to you, or matches the themes your film covers, your film, whatever genre, may fit a theme you haven’t even thought about and these days there’s a niche festival for almost anything you can think of. Match your festival submissions with places you wish to travel to, I think the biggest shame is when filmmakers miss the opportunity to present their film. I often have to reject films that I really liked either because of the old adage around not enough room to find it a home in one of our sessions, or because it’s not a fit for the audience I’m pitching the session it could in into. If you’re getting a lot of rejections don’t be afraid to re-edit your work. As a filmmaker you have to remain really objective about your own work, get it up in front of people who aren’t your friends and family, listen to the feedback you get and if necessary cut scenes that don’t work – even if you worked really hard to get them or they feature someone you don’t want to disappoint. It’s always best to leave people wanting more (and finding it easy to ‘slip’ a short in) than thinking it was just that tad too long.
Tell us the best and worst part of your job.
I’ve become thick-skinned when it comes to dealing with the odd angry rejected filmmaker who insists that we’ve just turned down the next Kubrick. Really the worst part has to be the nature of the workload involved in getting everything together. About 6 weeks out, I find myself questioning why I’d put myself through the preparations but as soon as I shake the hand of the first attending filmmaker it already feels all worthwhile. I think too I love the opportunity as a programmer I have to give a voice to share important social ideas and a platform for cutting edge creativity and creatives. Our tagline is Open Your Aperture and I really hope that I’m able to help people open their minds and hearts to new concepts.
Share with us one of your favourite films and tell us why you like it…
One of my favourite films is 2014’s Opening Night Film –When My Sorrow Died – The Legend of Armen Ra and the Theremin. They’re still on the festival circuit so you can only see a teaser.
There is so much I love about the film, Armen Ra’s warmth, character and wit, the art direction and so on. I feel though like it really reflects our event and our values – it’s colourful, flamboyant yet so full of heart and authenticity. It’s a film about acceptance, but most importantly self-acceptance. The film received a 3 minute standing ovation which was well deserved. I found it really inspiring and what was wonderful was how universal its appeal is.
Thank you to J’aimee for taking time to talk to us about Byron Bay Film Festival and sharing her insights. Don’t forget that the 23rd October is their LATE DEADLINE so try not to miss it filmmakers!
J'aimee SkipponBorn in Australia, J’aimee Skippon-Volke has a truly international perspective, spending much of her childhood in NZ, the US & the UK. Her parents worked in film and television and the family moved from New York to Australia to New Zealand and then to Thatcherite Britain, where the curtains opened on J’aimee’s love of underground cinema.
J’aimee went on to work with Producers and Executive Producers in the TV industry and after a stint in the USA, she settled in Byron Bay, Australia, to raise her family where she became actively involved in the community. Starting out behind the scenes of BBFF, she stepped up to the role of Festival Director and expanded it to international status to match Byron Bay’s international community in 2007.
With early adoption of social media, she has led BBFF from strength to strength. Community values remain close to J’aimee’s heart and she also works on the board of Screenworks, an organisation fostering a vibrant innovative screen industry in the NSW Northern Rivers region and over the year’s she’s been in various executive roles including President with the Byron Bay Community Association.