Free Film Festivals: Coming to a town near you?

by Maryann O'Connor on 24/04/2015


From the small acorn of the South East London Film Club in East Dulwich has sprouted a movement of free cinema for all. The Free Film Festivals are currently seven in number, six in London and one in Somerset.

The New Cross and Deptford Free Film Festival kicks off today (24 April – 03 May) boasting extremely diverse content and venues; from Guardians of the Galaxy in Fordham Park to Julie and Julia in Deli X, An American Werewolf in London, in Deptford Lounge, to Tony Benn’s Will and Testament in New Cross Learning. And that’s not even mentioning the Frozen Singalong. So, does anyone want to build a free film festival?

The festivals work on a very simple basis; someone has an idea to start one up, gets a local community venue or two interested in hosting and/or providing the equipment and arranges films to show and the volunteers and bob’s yer uncle. Or is it secretly a bit more involved than that?

Like all good ideas, Free Film Festivals found life in a pub over a sociable drink… New Empress had a quick word with founder Neil Johns to find out if it was really that easy to start a film festival movement;

Did you really come up with the idea over a pint and how long did it take from origination of the idea to putting on a film festival?

I just knew somebody in Peckham who was interested in starting a film festival and also someone in Nunhead..and I was already involved in a film club, showing films above a pub, and I liked the idea of doing screenings in unusual venues. I liked the idea of rather than waiting for people to come to our film club, actually taking our equipment out on the road and turning different venues into cinemas. As for how long it took, I think that meeting in the pub was February 2010 and the first festival took place in September the same year.

So it’s your equipment that you’re loaning out?

We already had a projector and…nothing sophisticated but you dont need incredibly expensive equipment to do it, you’re not trying to compete with the Odeon or cinema experience, it’s more about how unusual the atmosphere is. We have three digital projectors now and sound systems but they aren’t state of the art.

The equipment itself isn’t really a big barrier is it? A lot of community venues already have it..

A lot of pubs have projection equipment, it’s not that unusual to find…20 years ago it was much harder to show a film in public because you didn’t have digital projectors or DVDs and it was done on old fashioned film. but these days you can show a film using an ordinary office project and simple sound system. It’s more about having the desire to have it happen. Festivals need a little bit of money to pay for things like licensing of films; even old feature films will have a distributor in this country that you will have to pay for permission to screen the film in public, and that typically costs around 90-140 quid, sometimes a bit more, so you have to have money to cover the costs of those and some leaflets. We fundraise in different ways, we get grants from the council, small grants, we hire out our services to local authorities who want to put on a film in a park and we earn money from that.

Local councils must be keen to encourage such events…

Yes, it’s all part of their building stronger communities, community cohesion agenda – they like us because it’s all about encouraging volunteering and bringing people together..and we’re quite an economical way of doing that.

Most of the film festivals are close together in SE London, is it because they’ve inspired each other?

They started in Peckham and Nunhead, and the next one was New Cross and Deptford because someone had come to Peckham and Nunhead and decided they could do that in their area…a lot of people who come to the events come from the local area so that’s why they’ve spread within south east London, now there’s one in north London, I’ve been talking to someone about doing one in Palmers Green and now the first one outside London is in Somerset, during May.

Do you think there are any barriers to festivals popping up outside London?

I think you could set up a free film festival model of community run postcode or neighbourhood film festivals, turning community venues into cinemas and inviting people to come along and share the experience for free. I think that model could work anywhere; in London, outside London, a town a village, it’s quite a simple idea really. Each festival starts having one or two people who have a vision of ‘yeah I can make that work, I’d really like to do that’…then other people kind of fall in around that. Then they get together a small team and plan it. It takes time and commitment to do, but its all very doable and people seem to get a lot out of organising them.

In theory people like free things but there seems to be a mental barrier to cross, in that people don’t seem to see as much value in things that are free. Do you think that affects the Free Film Festivals?

I think the kind of events that we put on, people think ‘oh, I’d really like to be there’…i want to see that film, or i want to see a film in a park or a film in a cemetery. We try to match the films to the venue; for example we might show a film related to cycling inside a cycling shop… We get good attendances and have to turn people away from the events – we use social media but also use conventional leaflets and posters.

What has been your favourite event so far?

The Camberwell Free Film Festival just finished, they showed a fantastic film called Next Goal Wins which is about the worst international football team in the world; the film is in theory about football but it’s not really, it’s a film about human endeavour and triumph over adversity. It made me laugh and made me cry, what more do you want from a film? We showed some films in Nunhead cemetery, we put a big screen outside a ruined chapel and showed films three consecutive years, we showed A Matter of Life and Death and The Ladykillers..they were great, really popular events and people still talk about those screenings.

Anyone who wants to visit a film festival near them, or set up their own festival should visit the Free Film Festival website for more details.


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