Macau Festival Chief on Making the Casino Capital into a Major Moviegoing Destination (Q&A)

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Mike Goodridge, the event's new artistic director, discusses Macau's unique appeal for a global film industry event and why Netflix has only made movie festivals more vital.

The Macau international film festival — the latest addition to the global film festival circuit — kicks off its second edition in the casino enclave Friday with the crowd-pleasing opening film selection of Paddington 2.

An impressive roster of international film figures will walk the red carpet in support of the nascent event, including Hollywood actor Jeremy Renner, Hong Kong action hero and Rogue One star Donnie Yen, K-Pop phenom D.O. and Michelle Yeoh (to be seen next in Warner Bros' Crazy Rich Asians), among others.

Last year's inaugural International Film Festival & Awards Macao (IFFAM) saw its natural first-event growing pains compounded by the abrupt resignation of founding artistic director Marco Mueller just days before opening night. But the local Macau government and other industry veterans involved in the event — such as pan-Asian film producer Lorna Tee, IFFAM's head of festival management — have stuck with the program.

Mike Goodridge, former CEO of London-based film finance, production and sales company Protagonist Pictures, was hired over the summer as the festival's new artistic director. He has since set to work leveraging his connections and film business nous to assemble a program that can meet the expectations of experienced industry professionals, while also cultivating new art house devotees among the local, and regional, communities.

Goodridge rejigged the IFFAM's main competition section to feature exclusively first- and second-time directors — an acknowledgement of the event's youth, as well as a canny move to build ties with the world's best emerging moviemaking voices. The contenders include titles like Borg vs. McEnroe by Janus Metz and Beast by Michael Pearce, as well as Chinese director Xin Yukun's Wrath of Silence and Samuel Maoz's Foxtrot, and more. The winner will take away a cash prize of $60,000.

French director Laurent Cantet leads a competition jury comprised of filmmaker Jessica Hausner, Asia-based novelist Lawrence Osborne, actress-director Joan Chen and Singaporean director Royston Tan. Legendary German actor Udo Kier, meanwhile, will receive the festival's career achievement award for his remarkably long (over 200 films) and diverse (from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective to Dario Argento's Suspiria to Armageddon and Alexander Payne's Downsizing) career.

Shortly before IFFAM's opening night, THR spoke with Goodridge about the challenge and appeal of building a world-class cinema event in the heart of the world's largest casino center.

What's the pitch for holding a film festival in Macau?

Macau itself is obviously a very colorful place. You say the word Macau to anyone in the West and it conjures this notion of intrigue and mystery — a trading post where East meets West, with colorful characters of all sorts coming and going. In film history it conjures up memories of Josef von Sternberg's noir classic Macao, or some of the amazing more recent work of Johnnie To. Even Now You See Me 2, which was shot extensively here, made the city look spectacular in a more Hollywood kind of way. So that's all part of the appeal — it's an alluring place where people come to play and gamble, or to explore the fascinating old Portuguese history, which is very much alive and present.

From my 20-plus years of going to film festivals, I can say that a large part of what attracts people and makes an event successful is the setting. Think of Venice or Cannes — these are appealing places to go to, with special mythologies.

To what extent is serving as a platform, or gateway, to the fast-growing Chinese industry part of the festival's remit or reason for being?

Well, it's certainly part of what we want to do, but it will take a while to build. Too many events have promised to be "the gateway to China" and I don't think it's particularly useful to anybody to make those claims. First, we have to persuade the Chinese industry that the Macau festival is a useful place for them to visit, and that's a challenge just as much as persuading the West that we are the real deal as well. We will be working hard to prove ourselves on both fronts, but I'm not going to pretend that a festival is something that can be readymade. You have to earn people's trust and attention over time. We feel that we have very rich programming this year and a strong industry contingent coming — we want to show people that we mean business.

What was the guiding logic behind the film selection you put together for this year?

Well, we're opening with Paddington 2, which is about as commercial a film as you can get, but it's also an absolutely brilliant, timeless film for all ages. I actually think it's one of the best films of the year — it's just so magical. That selection was about using a wonderful mainstream film to draw people in to explore the rest of the program. That's the way to do it in a place that doesn't have a deep cinema-going habit yet. You can't just throw a bunch of art house films at the audience here. We're trying to cultivate that habit. We've got big American awards titles like Call Me By Your Name, The Florida Project and The Shape of Water, which should also help. But we also have a remarkable number of nice Asian premieres too, which people in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region haven't seen. There's a richness there for everybody. 

Amid the proliferation of digital platforms and today's abundance of opportunity to engage with high-quality screen content at home, do film festivals still have the same relevance? What can be done to help them stay significant?

I would say they have more significance. Film is kind of under siege at the moment as an art form and a medium. The very model of making films is being challenged by Netflix, Amazon and all the rest. Television has never been as extraordinary as it is today. So film festivals are becoming one of the only places were you can see a wide variety of signature, auteurist visions in the form of a film. This is really significant in a world where the variety that we have in cinema is actually not being well represented online. It's ironic because the internet was meant to give us endless variety, but actually the opposite has happened in cinema. As fewer and fewer of these films are distributed theatrically in the world, they're not being picked up online either. So I think film festivals have an increasing power to help distinctive, high-quality films get the necessary notice to have a life. Especially in a place like Macau, a film festival is really a gift to people who want to see something other than another Marvel movie or another Star Wars movie.

You mention the threat Netflix is posing to film, but you're also showing the Netflix-backed movie Okja, from South Korea's Bong Joon-ho.

[Laughs] Yes, we are — and we're absolutely thrilled to. Bong Joon-ho was very supportive of us showing the film on a big screen. Our appreciation for the film and the filmmaker is so special; we were thrilled that Netflix allowed us to show it. Traditionally, once a film has hit their platform they don't like to put it back on the big screen, but they helped us organize the event. Despite the fact that you can see the film on Netflix in Macau right now, tickets have sold very well. I think that shows you that there is still an appetite to see special films on the big screen.

So, about the mysterious departure of the festival's founding artistic director Marco Mueller on the eve of the event last year ...

[Laughs] "Mysterious departure" — I like that phrasing. I have to say I honestly don't quite know what happened. The challenge for me has been to get past it and hopefully that will happen with this year's event. It's been a little bit of an irritant, as we've had to repair some slight damage, but the organization has come together smoothly to put together a spectacular event. And this year I can assure you that the festival will have an artistic director in place on opening night.

For your industry friends who are coming to Macau for the first time, what tips are you giving them on how to enjoy the city?

Well, it's a completely unique place. It's one of those places you just sort of discover, wandering and following your curiosity. I love walking around Macau because there are so many sides to it. There's this incredibly singular sense of history — the rich Portuguese colonial history mixed with the growth of China over recent decades. And there's an amazing food culture — this is a place to eat. Macau was actually recently designated by UNESCO as a Creative City of Gastronomy. A lot of my discussions with locals tend to involve food. So my recommendation would be to discover, eat, drink and be merry. It's a place like no other.