Raindance Founder Celebrates a Quarter Century (Almost) of Europe's Biggest Independent Film Festival (Q&A)
Elliot Grove looks back at the humble origins of his event for indie filmmakers, kicking off in London for a 24th time on Sep. 21.
About to enjoy its 24th edition, London's Raindance film festival has gone from being the U.K.’s cheeky upstart to the well-established event and educational platform for emerging talent and those making films on a shoestring.
At the helm is Elliot Grove, the Canadian producer and man behind books such as Lo-to-No Budget Filmmaking (his first feature was made for the grand total of $368.26). In 1993, Grove decided that an event for fellow penniless filmmakers – such as his then-intern Edgar Wright – was needed, so launched Raindance, hitting up the Cannes product guide to invite films (including What’s Eating Gilbert Grape).
Almost a quarter of a century later, and Raindance is the largest independent film festival in Europe, this year showcasing 108 features and 85 shorts (some from its new virtual reality section), and from as many submissions as SXSW (but with significantly less staff to sift through the mail). And on the jury sit names such as Imelda Staunton, Stephen Fry, Olivia Coleman and Anna Friel. Still fresh from his second Cannes win, Ken Loach will be receiving the festival’s Auteur Award this year. The event runs Sept. 21-Oct. 2.
The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Grove about setting up Raindance at a time when the number of British films being made was in the single digits, lending his office to a young Christopher Nolan, establishing the much-loved British Independent Film Awards in 1998 as a boozy awards-giving side-arm and what happened when Loach was booed on stage (hint: punches were thrown).
Raindance is having its 24th edition. Firmly in its mid-20s now, is the festival still having a wild time or have things calmed down a little?
I remember in year five I went to Sony and asked if they’d sponsor us. And they said, “we only sponsor festivals that are 10 years old.” So I waited five long years, went back in year 10, and they said, “we don’t sponsor film festivals any more.” I always thought it’d be easier getting older. It’s not easier, you just have different problems. We have 8,000 submissions this year, and we’re only showing a couple of hundred. We’ve had as many submission as SXSW and a team roughly a 10th of the size. Somehow we’ve managed to pull it off.
How have things changed for the festival over the years?
Everyone’s shooting on digital now, but back then it was celluloid. Although in 1997 I think we had the first-ever European screening of video, a film called Mary Jane Is Not a Virgin Anymore, written and directed by Sarah Jacobson, a New York punk filmmaker who then died a couple of years later of cancer. And of course, YouTube. It’s only 10 years old, but it completely changed the distribution patterns. And that has meant that in the last few years, filmmakers who have come to Raindance seldom if ever get theatrical distribution, whereas in the early years they often did. But now they use Raindance to whip up interest in the self-distribution plans that they have or sometimes the boutique distributors. Of course, when I started, there was no emails or web sites. But a filmmaker without social media now is pretty much dead in the water.
How did the first festival come about?
I worked as a scenic artist in Canada, came over here and worked at the BBC, went back home, and then came back in ‘86, fancied myself a property entrepreneur, made a lot of money, but then went totally bust in '91. I spent a year feeling sorry for myself and then went back to film. And I started training courses, bringing people over from America in '92. After about a year, Edgar Wright and Chris Nolan started making these microbudget films. There was a whole bunch of us, trying to figure out how to make films with no money, because we had no money, no experience and no training. I started the festival because, that year in 1993 there were only six features being made in the U.K., compared to 100s in the 1960s. And there were only two festivals.
So if you were a British filmmaker, you either went to Edinburgh or London, but because there were so few British films they didn’t know what to do, so they stuck you in the World Cinema strand alongside Japanese films. So I thought – Raindance! I drew up a one-page press release, picked up a Cannes product guide and circled about 70 films I thought would be cool, went to a guy who was charging £1 per fax and sent off the one-page press release until my money ran out. And the f---ers all showed up! Including What’s Eating Gilbert Grape! The next couple of years were really tough, we showed every single thing that was submitted. That first year too, right before the first night, I got a call asking if I could squeeze a film in. But I said no. That film was Clerks. I don’t think [Kevin Smith] has ever forgiven me. But it started from really humble origins, I had no idea what I was doing.
How many films are you showing this year?
108 features, 85 shorts, 63 web series, 27 music videos and – for the first time – 14 virtual reality experiences!
You mentioned Edgar Wright. Wasn’t he your first intern?
Yeah, he was the guy carrying heavy boxes up and down the stairs.
Did any other big names pass through over the years?
Well, Chris Nolan I guess is the biggest name. We showed his shorts after he made it with Memento, but he used to use my old office as a base when he was shooting.
You also gave birth to the British Independent Film Awards in 1998...
Another painful experience!
Ha! What was the thinking there?
We decided one May that we should throw a party and, to attract the Ken Loaches or whoever of this world, we should give out awards. I was nationalistic and thought, let’s call it the British Independent Film Awards. We figured we’d need £10,000, so I went to Film4 they said they'd give me £5k but only if BBC Films gave me another £5k. So I went over there and said, "Film4 are giving us £5k," and they said they’d match it. So I got the £10k, and we pulled it off. That year we had Following [Nolan’s debut feature], and someone booed Ken Loach, so Peter Mullan punched the shit out of him, and someone called the cops because people were snorting coke in the loos, and my lawyer had to get them out of the building. It was pretty rock and roll!
But it’s quite glamorous these days – it’s been sponsored by Moet.
Yeah, but the champagne has now actually gone! [Moet’s sponsorship ended last year]. It’s good though, because people were starting to call it the Moet BIFAs, so I’m glad they’ve gone.
The BIFAs include more established names than Raindance, but is there much crossover?
Raindance does sponsor the Discovery award. I originally started the BIFAs because there was such disdain towards Raindance at first from the establishment figures, we were slagged off by a lot of people...
What was their issue?
I didn’t come through the old boys network. So, initially to attract those people, as well as the new people – I mean Edgar Wright, Chris Nolan, Shane Meadows, all those people started at the same time and they all came to the first few BIFAs – but to get those in the same room as the establishment, I thought I had to distance Raindance from the BIFAs. I did try to bring them back together, but in 2004 I had to go bust because some guy reneged on a £250K sponsorship deal, and with that I had to move it aside. But I was given some good advice: I had two separate brands, Raindance and the BIFAs, and I can be the founder, let it go. BIFA has only ever cost me money, but it’s this shiny toy that I get bragging rights for. And BIFA heads Amy [Gustin] and Deena [Wallace] do such a great job.
And the BIFAs is such a fun event
It is! I go to stuff all over the world and it’s one of my favorite nights.
The Raindance Film Festival runs Sep. 21 - Oct. 2