INTERVIEW WITH.. PHIL ILSON OF LONDON SHORT FILM FESTIVAL (LSFF)
We have Phil Ilson here who founded the BAFTA affiliated London Short Film Festival. It happens every January, and submissions open today! And more excitingly with a new submissions platform with Shooting People.
Tell us a bit about your job, and what you do…
I watch films, mainly short films. A lot! As a programmer for my own London Short Film Festival and as part of the shorts programming team for the BFI London Film Festival, then a lot of my time is spent watching films on laptops, DVDs and at other film festivals. I also advise on special events mixing music and film for festivals likeJersey Branchage, Cork, and Latitude, which is leftover from working on more multi-media programming from the early 2000s. Basically, my day to day is an immersion in the world of festivals, which can also be all aspects of organisation, from technical to venues to promotion.
You’re partnering up with Shooting People for the next festival, and with a new submissions platform. Tell us how this came about, and what makes this platform different?
LSFF have taken root in the Shooting People office for a couple of years now, as part of a media sponsorship deal, and recent discussions turned to how we can work more closely together as a lot of the work we do around short film crosses over between us. Shooting People are coming on board to work on partnerships and sponsorship, as well as building a submissions platform for entry rather than using one of the established platforms. In entering the Festival direct, the filmmaker can have a more personal relationship with us, as the more established platforms can feel faceless and corporate.
You spend a lot of time guest judging and appearing on panels at festivals outside of the UK. Do you see any differences between our circuit and the European/Rest of World?
European festivals tend to be more established and have more financial support. Short film festival like Hamburg and Oberhausen in Germany and Clermont Ferrand in France have all existed for 40 years or more in some cases. In the UK, Encounters is a veteran at 20 and we’re a mere beginner at 12. Being in smaller towns, they have big local audiences who have been coming to the festivals for generations as they’re an established part of that town’s cultural history. Outside of Edinburgh, I can’t think of anywhere like this in the UK. There’s definitely more of a film culture in Europe. I haven’t attended festivals outside of Europe, so can’t comment on the scene in America or Asia.
… And if so, can we learn anything from them?
I learn off all festivals I attend; you can see what works, what’s inspiring and what doesn’t work, as regards how you present the Festival to the public. I’ve never been audience driven, as I believe that you should be honest in terms of your programming or how the Festival is run, and if people come then so be it. But every festival will inspire and excite you, or as a flipside think “I wouldn’t want to do it like that.” I think it would be hard to ‘copy’ European festivals exactly, as the cultural climate and the public view of independent, art and short film is so different.
The festival is going to be in its 12th year (correct me if it’s 11!) when it gears up again next January. Was it a conscious decision to have it happen early in the year from the original incarnation, and do you find that effects anything?
Yes, it will be Festival number 12 in Jan 2015. The Festival has been the first week in January since it’s inception in 2004; when we first spoke to the ICA, where we held the first Festival under the name Halloween Short Film Festival, we decided to do it at a time when it wouldn’t have other competition from other festivals. This is still the case, despite there being way more festivals 12 years later, but no one wants to try and do one a few days into the new year. It’s always tough from the organisational side, as everything stops for over 2 weeks just before our opening night, so we have to have everything in place before the Christmas and new year holiday, which can be tough. Then it goes crazy from 2nd January, but people love it because it’s the start of a new year and everyone’s back in London from being holed up with their families. (N.B. The Halloween name of the original festival, before we became London Short Film Festival in 2008, grew out of the monthly Halloween Society short film night which I ran from the late 90s.)
Feel free to dispel a recurring myth about film festivals…
I suppose one is that filmmakers think that festivals have got it in for them, specifically if they don’t get selected, like there’s some kind of behind the scenes conspiracy that festivals are being run by an arrogant body of men-like politicians and businessmen who couldn’t care about creativity. One filmmaker I met after I’d selected their film said they thought I’d be an old bloke in a suit! I see running a festival and programing as a creative act, as is making a film or creating music in a band; in fact, I’ve used the music analogy before. Starting a film festival for me wasn’t dissimilar to starting a band; you want to create something to entertain people, but you’re not going to compromise in your artistic vision and direction, the way a band wouldn’t play music they hated. My programming is about championing work I like and want other people to see, so it becomes a personal artistic vision as much as it is for the filmmakers making their films.
Another myth I’ve heard is that not all the films get watched and festivals have agendas to only invite friends’ films, award winners or film with big name stars in. This may be the case with some festivals, but I’ve personally never come across this in all my dealings with numerous festivals. Admittedly, every festival has its own way of working; some have multiple teams of viewers and pre-selectors while other just have one or two key people in place to watch submissions. I personally, where possible, like to view everything submitted as that’s my role as a programmer. There are few people I’d trust to select the work I want to showcase, but there are some key people I’ve met over the years whom I’m happy to view submitted work up front of me.
What’s your advice to someone who gets a rejection from a festival?
I saw an amazing t-shirt worn by someone in the street at the Hamburg Short Film Festival this year; it may have been home made. It said “my film wasn’t selected”. Very funny, and perhaps how filmmakers should see the bigger picture. Of course, it must be frustrating when something you’ve put sweat and blood into then gets a standard ‘rejection’ letter, but I think you have to be philosophical and move on. I don’t have any tips or rules for ‘how to get your film selected’ beyond ‘make a good film’, but the nature of filmmaking and film programming is that it’s all subjective and down to taste.
Tell us the best and worst part of your job.
I would be honest and say there’s no bad part of the work I do; I enjoy watching films, visiting festivals and seeing a festival I work on come to fruition and people attend. It’s a very personal feeling when audiences turn out for a screening. The downside is the financial side; in the UK it’s really hard to actually get paid to do this type of work, and there are many hours of overtime which can also bleed into your social life in attending festivals. It also means that many festivals are run by a team of volunteers who are dedicated and excited to be working despite the fact there’s little room for promotion into highly paid positions.
Share with us one of your favourite films and tells us why you like it…
This is a tough decision as I have seen thousands of short films for nearly 20 years. When I first began, I was excited to see the work of Andrew Kotting and screened his BFI funded drama SMART ALEK at the first ever Halloween Society night, and it’s great to still be championing and supporting his work to this day; I’m looking forward to attending his BY OUR SELVES screening and event at Hackney Picturehouse this week where he’s presenting a work in progress of his new feature with Iain Sinclair. Since the early days, I’ve always championed British short film and have been proud to have seen the rise of British filmmakers Andrea Arnold, Clio Barnard, Peter Strickland, Carol Morley, Jamie Thraves, and Asif Kapadia, all of whom I’ve programmed their early short film work. To choose a single film from these directors and the thousands of others in nigh on impossible, so I’m selecting a Spanish film that I first saw at Bristol Encounters in the late 2000s, called YEAH YEAH YEAH by Marcal Fores; I love it’s joyous honesty and fuck you attitude – it has a dance sequence and characters dressed as animals, plus a kick ass indie soundtrack. I wouldn’t call it a comedy, but it leaves a smile on your face; my preferred genre of film tends to be a lot darker and serious in work like Andrea Arnold’s WASP, so again YEAH YEAH YEAH is a contradiction to my usual tastes, and I can return to it again and again.
Thanks to Phil for taking the time to speak to Festival Formula. Submissions are open for LSFF now and all prices and deadlines, including info on the new submission platform, can be found here. The late deadline is September 11th.
Below is Phil’s biography:
Philip Ilson is the Director of the London Short Film Festival, which he co-founded in 2004. He is also the short film programmer for the BFI London Film Festival, and works as a freelance programmer at the Cork Film Festival, Ireland, and the Branchage Festival, Jersey. Following his founding of the Halloween Society short film club in the 90s, he has since also worked as a programmer for the Curzon Soho, Latitude music festival, the East End Film Festival, and other film events.