Film Festivals - The Only Way Is (Not) Essex?

 At last year's London Film Festival I managed an impressive 15 films in five days and loved every minute from the amazing (Robot and Frank) to the downright bizarre (A Fish).   The average ticket price was £12, a price that would exclude many Londoners. The LFF is heavily funded, in 2009 the BFI awarded them £1.8 million for the next three years.  I for one certainly feel the LFF is an important and special event that generates tourism and prestige for London and one we want to remain as part of the calendar forever, but what about local film festivals?  

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41.9 miles from London, Southend is one of the largest conurbations in the East of England and is currently vying to be the next City Of Culture.  Culture is probably not the word that leaps to the forefront of most people's minds when they think of Southend. Or City.   It is a town of opposing ideals: one of the most deprived areas of England and also one of the most up and coming. There are roughly 174,000 people living in Southend and there is one cinema.  ONE! A small, boring Odeon.  Another town with a local film festival, Cambridge, has around 123,000 inhabitants and has  three cinemas.  Does that mean that Southend isn't a 'cinema' town? Or does it mean no one wants to open a cinema there?  Luckily for Essex film fans the Southend Film Festival exists which this year is showing 38 diverse films over four days.  The original plan was to show around 62 films, however this year it very nearly didn't happen at all because the festival had 75% of it's previous lottery funding cut by new governing body, Creative England.  

I spoke to Paul Cotgrove, Southend's festival director.  Paul previously worked in film distribution and is extremely passionate about just about every type of film making as well as Southend on Sea itself; exactly what you'd want from a local festival director.  The festival is in its fifth year and has grown each year both in size range of films.  The film festival started after a request five years ago by Southend Council to fill the air show gap.  Paul was given just two months to create a festival.   He managed it and it opened with Eran Creevy's Shifty which was attended by Eran Creevy and Danny Mays.  Subsequent years were funded by a mixture of council, sponsorship and lottery funding.  In 2012 with full funding from the BFI, it showed 38 films over four days, had a short film competition for local film makers and over 3000 in attendance. This year on the festival programme you can see Holy Motors, Amour, Yella, The Mexican Suitcase and Le Bonheur Terre nestled alongside Laurel and Hardy and Top Hat.  Independent British films feature highly too with Tortoise in Love and festival opener Borrowed Time and closer No Fixed Abode. There are shorts from Canvey Island and Sopot, North Poland.  It is a full and varied programme. Phil Davis will be in attendance for Borrowed Time as will patron Ray Winstone. Paul ensures ticket prices remain low (all tickets are just £4) to cater for local budgets and families, he says “The festival has now found an appreciative audience for U.K independent Cinema and also fills a strong need for alternative film programming that is non existent in Southend and the rest of Essex”. 

So far so good, so what has the Southend Film Festival done wrong to have so much of it's funding removed?  Of course the current economic climate must be considered, cuts are appearing everywhere; however many other festivals received all or close to all of their applied funding from Creative England.  The website for festival funding guidelines states 'the majority of awards will be in the region of between £6,000 and £10,000'.  The £5000 Southend Film Festival was awarded was short even of the lowest estimate. I took a look at the application and the response from Creative England and it is, to be frank, confusing. Whilst I can appreciate some of the points they are raising it does appear they didn't look at the festival as a whole before passing a final judgement. 

A little festival history: Cambridge film festival started in 1977, Edinburgh film festival 1947, London Gay and Lesbian Festival, 1986.  Southend Film Festival...2008.  Last year over 3000 people  attended compared with 15,000 attendees at the Cambridge film festival.  Southend needs to grow but it needs time and guidance to do that.   Paul says that his major obstacle is venues.  The Odeon doesn't support the festival and there are no other cinemas, he has to use theatres which is costly.   Frustratingly there is a derelict cinema in Southend that could potentially be turned into an art house cinema and main base for the festival. The other major obstacle faced by Southend is Southend itself and the preconceptions and prejudices that exist.  With some work this festival could be part of the wheel that goes into motion to change these.  

The 2014 Southend Film Festival is now in the hands of the BFI's Audience Fund which has the potential to award from £5,000 to £300,0000 up to £1 million per year.  The next round of funding Paul will apply for will potentially fund for three years but after that the festival has to stand alone.  I would think by this point the the festival would be in it's 8th year and should have matured enough to be able to do this but it needs funding now to be able to grow.  Local film festivals such as this one are vital and should be protected.   At the end of our chat, Paul said to me 'I still have faith in this festival'.  Let's hope his faith is rewarded.