Film Curating in the 21st Century - A Personal View

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As the London Short Film Festival hurtles towards its 10th anniversary in January 2013, Festival Director Philip Ilson takes stock of what is ostensibly a career in film programming, covering a period of nigh on 20 years, and considers what informs and drives his approach to curating screenings.

My first lesson in film curating was the strength of anti-curating; or rather the open-access short film screenings at the nineties Exploding Cinema nights in South London. There would be an array of super 8 films and VHS tapes that were played from whatever filmmakers and audiences turned up with and what was on the top of the pile. Subsequently, the nights were made up of shit film after shit film, with the odd gem shining out from the shit. But that wasn’t the point; the events were inspirational and original, with multi-projection film loops and old b-movies playing on the venue walls and these amazingly crafted programme booklets with essays and artworks from the Exploding Cinema collective members.

Basically, it was the spirit that made the events; you knew exactly what you were going to get, in terms of an entertaining night, and half the fun would be waiting for the next film, as maybe that one will be the masterpiece you’ve been expecting.  Plus there was the social aspect of seeing the familiar faces and hearing about other film nights that were springing up around London at that time, including my own Halloween Society, which I began with my filmmaking school friend Tim Harding.

In the nineties, Halloween had a similar passion about putting on a good night, with the difference being that it was a carefully curated themed selection of short film and other entertainments, from cabaret to live music to comedy to live soundtracks. Club nights were also going through a boom time, particularly with the DJ explosion, and looking back we definitely aligned ourselves to how music was presented to an audience, with a dedication to detail that came through in flyer design, the choice of venue, the added live elements, and of course, the films chosen to be screened. And like the best DJs, we never showed a film we didn't like.

A personal history of the nineties and early 2000s film club scene can be read in [The Halloween Society](, a piece I wrote for Lux Online in 2006 , where I look at the various nights, alternative underground festivals such as Volcano and spin-offs in more detail.

Also in those heady nineties days I was a regular visitor to the Kings Cross Scala Cinema. The Scala’s legacy has been written about elsewhere too, and was revived in the [Scala Forever]( festival in summer 2011 which played across London cinemas and venues. For me, the Scala was the most exciting of the London rep cinemas because of its dedication and love of cinema that was evident in its lovingly crafted monthly brochure and it’s championing of leftfield films. Even though it is often remembered for trash epics from John Waters to Russ Meyer to Ed Wood, my experiences there included discovering Scorsese, Malick, Altman and beyond. London also had the National Film Theatre, the Hampstead Everyman and regular double-bill matinees elsewhere, which were also fantastic for my younger self, but it was the Scala where I’d more than likely end up.

The Halloween Short Film Festival and The London Short Film Festival

Both the Scala and Exploding Cinema had that immediately recognisable brand and personality, which made them attractive. When myself and Kate Taylor founded the Halloween Short Film Festival in 2004, renamed the [London Short Film Festival]( in 2008, we became part of their legacy. With the 9th London Short Film Festival just finished earlier this year, the general vibe and feedback we’ve received is that audiences like a personality, whether that’s myself and Festival Producer Chloë Roddick or the overall Festival branding via it’s brochure print design and the sort of screenings and events that we put on.

There’s no denying that branding and personality go hand in hand with curation and programming, and this also extends to partnering up with other organisations for the Festival, for them to host their own events. When we approach the likes of [Rich Pickings](, [Club des Femmes](, [Passenger Films](, [Making Tracks](, [Peccadillo Pictures](, [Salon des Refuses](, [Midnight Movies](, [Underwire Festival ](, it’s because we consider them fellow travellers on the UK film scene, who have a certain ethos and taste that audiences into independent film can trust and follow. We give them free range to programme what they want to do and trust them implicitly to deliver an excellent screening or event. In the first few years LSFF extended this kind of programming into music as well, bringing in the likes of Eat Your Own Ears or Artrocker to run live gig events / parties, as we liked their ethos and tastes too.

In those first few years, myself and Kate were always on the same wavelength regarding what the Festival would be, through our combined love of DIY culture, fanzines, lo-fi style and music. With little budget, we initially marketed the festival on our personalities as if we *were* a band, with a series of annual flyers featuring us looking more like musicians than programmers.  This wasn’t meant or hopefully perceived as an arrogance, but more as an approachable ‘we are the Festival’ vibe; since Kate left, the two Festival Producers Carla MacKinnon (2010) and currently Chloë Roddick were also personal friends before we worked together, so we have a mutual understanding of what LSFF is. That instinctual ethos continues to the Festival today.

Programming Short Films

Foremost LSFF (and Halloween Society before it) is a short film festival, and I'd like to give an in-road into how the 300 shorts screened are selected from the 800+ sent in. For the first six years, films were selected by Kate and I in intensive sessions over a few days, and since then they have been whittled down by a tiny team, or in most cases just me alone. Filmmakers not accepted to screen may argue (and they often do) that this curatorial process is unfair; just one or two people making a final decision on what goes through, because that programmer may simply not like that kind of film. Without wishing to sound arrogant, a simple answer could be ‘tough’, but to demystify how my curation works takes in a number of elements.

Firstly there is no denying that over time one gets an understanding of how audiences respond to films, through honing programmes in public to see what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes making mistakes and running unsuccessful events can be equally helpful, like in other artforms. Also, many years of watching short films gives you an overview and often an innate understanding of the film as soon as you press play; short film subject matter hasn’t really changed in those 20 years, even if new voices find different ways of telling those stories, but it’s exciting seeing what’s coming through and then finding films that gel or have a conversation with each other, and then putting those films together into a programme.

As programming is my job, ostensibly I do year-round research, attending events from brand new pop-up screenings around London, which emerge year after year, to keep the scene healthy and new, and attending other festivals to see how they work, both across the UK and internationally. Every new event or screening can act as an inspiration, and it’s important not only to see as much work as possible but to actually go to other events and festivals, to see how they do it. Also, by getting out there, you build relationships, with peers, filmmakers, other festival programmers and audiences in general. To sum up, audiences will get to trust the programmer.

Many other festival programmes are run differently and are programmed by viewing committees, seeing this as a fairer process. But I believe the power of the overall programme can then become fragmented. To use a music analogy, radio DJ John Peel spent 40 years at the forefront of promoting new talent purely on the instinct of what he liked and wanting his audiences to also hear it. Of course, Peel gave us gabba techno and speed metal, but he also gave us The Smiths, Buzzcocks and was an early champion of hip hop, but he hated REM and American college rock, and refused to play them; we loved him for all these things.

In those 10 years since we founded the Festival, I’ve also worked as a programmer on a number of other festivals, and I try to bring my ethos where I go. I’m very proud of the work I’ve done as one of the shorts programmers at the [BFI London Film Festival]( (LFF); the feedback I’ve had at the Festival following screenings from selected filmmakers and random audiences has been very strong. It’s been noted that these programmes have a personality, and I’m very much about people being aware that it’s me selecting the work to screen. But there has also been detractors, saying the films are too dark and dense, and I’ve entered into debates over certain programmes in the way you would over a feature film you’d just seen. I’ve even had comments where an audience member really didn’t like the films, but there were images and stories that are ingrained on their mind that will keep them thinking and discussing for a while.

Programming Styles

An inspiration at LFF is programmer Mark Webber, who founded and programmes the Experimenta strand. Offthecuth cinema blogger Sam Cuthbert says: “I love seeing what Mark Webber brings to LFF. I assume (wrongly or rightly) that Mark has spent the year seeking things out around the world to deliver them to me in a nice neat package come September and through his talks and programme notes I understand and can reason his choices. Importantly, I may not like or enjoy the films but I can see why he's brought them to my attention.”

The other Festival I’ve programmed since its inception in 2008 is [Branchage]( in Jersey. Founded by Jersey born documentary filmmaker Xanthe Hamilton, from the outset Xanthe had a clear idea of what Branchage was to be for her, partly inspired by her visits to the True/False Film Festival in Washington, U.S. Her personality is integral to the Festival, even if she has to fight her corner, particularly as sponsorship has to come from the private sector where sponsors need a clear understanding of what they’re giving their money over for, and this is hard in Jersey, where there’s never been anything like a cross-arts multi-venue Festival before.

Xanthe's ethos is about the look and public perception, which comes out in the Festival design, wording and even venue decoration; the 2011 Festival saw designer Molly Carroll set up a workshop in a church hall to build props and items to decorate all venues across the island. On the Saturday night, there’s always a big party in a specially-built spiegeltent which is a highlight and defines the Festival. The public love of the Festival is down to this attention to detail, and for me as a programmer its then clearly defined as to what films need to be screened in this kind of environment. I love the idea of bringing a rural documentary such as *Sleep Furiously* into an old barn on a working farm, with the milk cows moo-ing outside echoed by those on screen, and then to have the film’s director Gideon Koppel in attendance to talk about the film.

The programming is given care and attention to fit. Any festivals that has a blanket programming policy of ‘throw everything against the wall and some of it will stick’ has no overriding theme or ethos or even love of presenting the Festival to the public and audience. Branchage has continued a tradition of how to present the cinema of spectacle in an exciting fashion; with its array of alternative venues dotted across Jersey, from large scale live music & film events such as French electro duo Zombie Zombie performing live alongside *Battleship Potemkin* on the back of a tugboat in the harbour, or live film soundtracks performed by the likes of British Sea Power and Simon Fisher Turner in the majestic Jersey Opera House, or even smaller scale live soundtrack events in picturesque remote churches. These kind of creative events are integral to keeping live cinema fresh and exciting, and I’m pleased that Branchage has been at the fore of this.

It’s great to see festivals like [Flatpack]( in Birmingham and the new [Fringe! Gay Film Festival]( in East London be creative beyond the cinema screen. Flatpack takes over warehouse and gallery spaces across the Digbeth industrial area, and Fringe! pops up across East London in a variety of locations including the excellent [Little Joe Club House]( made from wood and sacking and a carefully curated programme of retrospective queer cinema, by the likes of veteran producer James MacKay and Tate Modern’s moving image curator Stuart Comer.

The Cinematic Experience

City Screen and Curzon Cinemas are ostensibly chains, but what they do bring to the table is a cinema experience that goes beyond what is on the screen, and for this we must be thankful. The bigger Cineworld and Odeon chains are treating audiences as cattle, with appallingly overpriced drinks, popcorn and smelly nachos, and no policy in place to create a pleasant experience when visiting; I believe there’s now an on-going issue about multiplexes keeping the cinema lights up during the main feature. With new sites at places like the 02 Arena and the Westfield shopping centres, I do find it inexplicable that designers and architects can get it so wrong. Despite being chains, City Screen and Curzon Cinemas do provide places where you would want to visit and stay awhile, with good bar spaces, comfortable auditoriums and friendly staff.  It is important to mention this, as like festivals, it’s integral to a whole package which goes beyond the films on the screens.

Going back to the inspiration that one can take from both Exploding Cinema and the Scala is a love of film, and a curatorial dedication to bringing film to an audience that goes beyond just sticking a film on and projecting it. But the downside of a chain mentality is a levelling out of programming. No one is denying that the likes of City Screen and Curzon Cinemas are showing excellent films, with their own in-house programming, but as these groups open more and more cinemas, we find that we have loads of places all showing the same films, even more so when Curzon Cinemas also have a partnership with Artificial Eye film distributors, and Picturehouse move more into distribution. Both circuits still support festival and rep screenings, and we can only hope that this will continue; the Curzon Soho site is a venue for the London Short Film Festival, and throughout the year the bar is a hotbed of filmmakers and producers holding meetings, as it’s right in the heart of Soho. It’s a real buzz for these filmmakers to then see their films on the big screen there, and they may be the future of the Curzon’s feature programme. The newly opened Hackney Picturehouse, part of the City Screen chain, has an Attic bar for alternative events, which can be anything from short film nights to live soundtrack to comedy and club nights, which is also forward thinking of the venue. And both Curzon and City Screen have a strong support of one-off documentary screenings as well. There is an argument that there’s a levelling out of arthouse chain programming into a programming plateau of similarity, but there is still seem room for an alternative at these cinemas, even if it does feel as if it is hanging on by its fingernails.

But what is also good to know is that there are still the single independent cinemas out there, with specific personalities programming them whether that’s Shira McLeod at [Riverside Hammersmith]( programming double-bills, to Charles Rubenstein at the [Rio Dalston]( And these cinemas also understand the power of the carrot cake and good coffee.

New Voices

There’s a further world of exciting programming which is on the increase and a welcome successor to the likes of the Scala and Exploding Cinema. Both [Midnight Movies]( and [Cigarette Burns]( have been around for a number of years now, but are really coming to the fore in terms of what they are offering; both organisations were heavily involved in the Scala Forever season. Cigarette Burns are particularly good at a constant Facebook and Twitter campaigns that are actually interesting rather than annoying spam; we get virtually daily updates of lost filmmakers birthdays and trailer links that fit their ethos. These bitesize chunks can be quite educational, pointing you in the direction of lost gems and obscure curios.

Josh Upstart, who is Cigarette Burns, is a dedicated lover of cinema acting alone in a difficult world of distribution; it’s fantastic that these clips are all available via YouTube that he can link to, but he knows that languishing out there in a West London warehouse unused are literally thousands of 35mm prints of these films that he wants to get his hands on to screen, but simply can’t because of the inhospitable and difficult work of feature film distribution. Also, while we’re on the subject of YouTube, the fact that Josh has spent time trawling through the endless morass that is YouTube means that you don’t have to; he’s found those gems in amongst the skateboarding dogs. This leads to a larger issue around programming and curation in that now that everything is available at the touch of a button, we need someone there to sort the wheat from the chaff and put into some sort of order for audiences. The curator as gatekeeper.

Two new curators I’d like to bring in here work exclusively with celluloid, and bypass the problems that Josh has pinpointed. [Screen Bandita]( are based in Edinburgh and they work specifically with found footage on super-8 film. Their events, with names like *‘Reels From Life, or How We Learned to Love Post-Modernism’*, are more spectacles as they mix projection with found sound through the use of tape recorders and wind-up gramophone record players using 78rpm platters. The chosen films are obviously carefully selected and put together, and Screen Bandita’s arrival on the scene is incredibly important, particularly at a time when digital is becoming all encompassing.

Also working with 16mm film is [Suitcase Cinema](, who have been running events with single screening films which they’ve been buying up on E-Bay or from film distributors going out of business. Their idea is simple: That you can put a 16mm projector on a bicycle and take it to a venue (anywhere – a café, a bar) and set it up and show a film. Their screenings have been simple but incredibly charming, particularly as the projector is set up in the venue so the audience can hear the relaxing whirr it makes as well as experience the interval break to change the reels. And they carefully curate, whether they have lost 60s French avant garde shorts or a documentary feature like the early 80s film *The Atomic Café* which they screened at LSFF. Katie Jackson from Suitcase Cinema has also been inspired by Screen Bandita to develop ideas about what is presentable within a screening and I look forward to seeing where this takes them.

It’s also worth mentioning the legacy of [Straight 8]( here, who have been on the scene for 10 years now, celebrating super-8 celluloid against all odds. Their annual competition to make a film unedited on a single roll of super-8 film has kept the format alive in the minds of filmmakers, both emerging and successful. With doom and gloom news such as the demise of Kodak, it’s fantastic to see that Straight 8 are receiving more entries than ever before, and that the likes of Screen Bandita and Suitcase Cinema are out there flying the celluloid flag. In fact, not only did we host events with both groups at this year’s LSFF, but also commissioned a super-8 Festival trailer from Straight 8.

Inspiration Elsewhere

Sam Cuthbert has an enthusiasm for cinemas that show us their love by their passionate programming and interesting promotional tools. He’s of the idea that: “personality is king. You recognise names, you see the programmers come out at the end and say thanks for coming”. He adds that he “want to bring back the William Castles, the Jack Sargeants, the Tony Tensers – whatever faults they had you can’t fault their passion for cinema”. William Castle was an American filmmaker who worked with gimmicks for his crazy sci-fi and horror flicks such as flying skeletons across the audience in *The House on Haunted Hill*. Tony Tenser was operating as an exploitation distributor in the UK, while producing the likes of *Repulsion* for Polanski, and built the first ever purpose built multi-screen cinema in Panton Street off Leicester Square in London’s West End as a place to screen multiple choice films. And [Jack Sargeant]( is active today as writer specialising in New York underground cinema while curating events at London’s [Horse Hospital](, the New York and Chicago underground film festivals, and the Perth Revelation Film Festival in Australia. 

In Los Angeles, there are a couple of amazing sounding cinemas Sam has told me about:

The Cinefamily is run by Hadrian Belove, and is described on-line as a “mixed media event space, a hang-out, a church, a locus point on the L.A. landscape, a movie geek summer camp, a romantic first date, and a good place to get some coffee and a cupcake that’s run by maniacs whose idea of a good time may coincide with yours.” This definitely looks like the Scala’s little brother now all grown up, and it’s sad that we have nothing nearing this in the UK. The programming is a mix of new releases veering more towards arthouse and foreign language, with a regular programme of rep and special events. Also, it mixes trash and serious cinema, with the week of writing featuring a screening of silent classic Sunrise with a piano soundtrack and complimentary Champagne to a Valentine’s Night compilation of the 100 Most Outrageous Fucks in Cinema. It also helps being in Los Angeles that there is a steady stream of available talent, and also this week is a visit from ageing  Cassevetes regular actor Seymour Cassell for an in conversation event. But then, surely we have a talent pool in London too, that we should definitely make more use of beyond a Fassbender Q&A for Shame.

The [New Beverley]( was ‘saved’ by Quentin Tarantino, who runs an on-going programme of lost and cult films and regularly turns up to introduce or give a talk about what’s screening. British filmmaker Edgar Wright also programmes there, with a policy of selecting films that he wants to see; this is an interesting slant on the programmer as fanboy, as Wright has a big following among comic fans and cult movie geeks who will turn up to see whatever he shows.

Sam adds there could be a positive future off the back of the recent [BFI]( report on film commissioned by the government. It specifically points out that there should be more film education in schools from an earlier age, rather than just as a GCSE option. With film culture away from Hollywood ingrained from an earlier age, this could lead to a younger generation starting up new nights and venues along the lines of a Cinefamily or Scala. Sam also adds that in the 1960s, the BFI ran summer schools for younger kids that was about watching films then followed by seminars to discuss what was watched. The BFI currently have an on-line learning portal, which is an updated step in the right direction, as long as the schools and teachers make use of it. To sum up, as Sam points out: “Programming is an art; you can give people the tools and knowledge, but how they put that into practice is anyone's game.”

Thanks to Kate Taylor [projectcinephilia]( and Sam Cuthbert [@offthecuth](!/offthecuth)