Any anniversary is a really big deal. To start a film festival and an awards show also a really big thing. We caught up with Elliot Grove on the eve of the 25th Raindance Film Festival to find out how it all came about.
What was your motivation behind starting Raindance?
Elliot Grove: I was at a personal low point in my career, and decided to try a thought experiment: Can you make a movie with no money, no experience and no film training. I didn’t know anyone in the industry. I didn’t have any filmmaking experience. And I was flat broke.
But why did you start Raindance?
Elliot Grove:I started Raindance in 1992 when the British film industry was in the doldrums,. This was a time when it was hard to raise funds to make a film after the government tightened tax rules on the back of the Film Act in 1985. Our first events were training events with the great and good film school gurus from Hollywood: Dov Simens, Syd Field, John Truby, Christopher Vogler and the like. My first intern was a very young and eager Edgar Wright.
Suddenly British filmmakers started making films, guerrilla style, like their American colleagues. The trouble was there was nowhere to show them unless they showed at the London or Edinburgh Film Festivals. And if you submitted your British film to either of these great film festivals, it was such an rarity to have one of these new British films the festival programmers didn’t know how or where to programme them – so they programmed them amongst the Japanese, French and American films in the ‘New World Cinema’ strands.
I decided to start the Raindance Film Festival to celebrate these new British films, but then discovered something quite surprising about British film-goers – they were snobs. They didn’t see any government or big brand logos on the early Raindance Film Festival posters and they assumed Raindance was just another money grab by a visiting tourist. I’m Canadian by birth!
Who did come those first few years, were the Japanese, the French and American films and filmmakers. In 1993 we had the first ever public screening of a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio – he was just 14 when he made What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. It took another five years before British filmmakers realised that having a major international film festival in the heart of London celebrating independent cinema was a good thing.
Where did the name come from?
Elliot Grove: In my first few years I shared an office with a graphic designer and had a single line with call waiting. The telephone rang that first year and it was Robert Redford himself asking why I had stolen his name Sundance. I spent a few minutes trying to convince him to allow me to lead him to the plethora of talented filmmakers in Britain and Europe. I explained I had named it Raindance because of the dance you need to do to make a film and because it rains in London. The line went dead, and when Sundance finally appeared in London in 2012 I was left off the guest list!
What was the industry reaction at the day?
Elliot Grove: I was viewed as the upstart know-nothing, the disruptor causing no small degrees of pain to the establishment. Like any start-up I managed to survive long enough and slowly the industry first acknowledged and then accepted the contribution of Raindance. Slowly Raindance has become established – establishment if you like. And now faces new challengers and disruptors.
Why hasn’t Raindance secured public finance?
Elliot Grove: I’ve spent nearly a year of the past quarter century filling out failed application form after application form. For the record, 36 in all. And each takes a good 2-3 weeks to complete. That’s a year!
The reasons why there has been no public funding vary as widely as the 36 failed applications I’ve made. Perhaps, I think, Raindance is too contemporary for the purse-holders controlling public funds.
Are you bitter about that?
Elliot Grove: I’ve been bitter, I do confess. But about five years ago I decided to let the public funding idea go. Never have I been happier either. To feed at the tit of government funding implies that one’s idea is not commercially successful. Not to mention the compliance and reporting one must do! I have more time now for positive action.
Besides we rely on our fans: Oue festival attendees. And our Benfactors and Patrons.
What is your opinion of your London festival rivals?
Elliot Grove: London has over a hundred film festivals, and two other major festivals in this town, the London Film Festival and FrightFest. Both do tremendous work bringing movies to the general public.
Raindance is a very different festival to any other. The films we screen, though entertaining, are the films that most other festivals would shy away from – they’re pioneering, at times taboo, and always culturally groundbreaking.
What has changed over the 25 years?
Elliot Grove: You used to need about a million pounds to make a movie. You shot on film. It almost always ended in a cinema followed by a home video release. And investors often got their money back.
Now the digital revolution has changed not only the film production process, but more importantly the distribution cycle. It’s never been easier to make a film. Nor more difficult to distribute it.
What do you see as the technological advances that advance independent filmmaking?
Elliot Grove: Digital, digital and more digital. Production has been revolutionised, and democratised. So too has distribution. Never has it been esier and cheaper to make a film. And never before has it been easier to get your film out there.
The trick is, as it was a quarter century ago: What can you do to make your film go viral?
Do you have to be a filmmaker to attend Raindance?
Elliot Grove: You can be a filmmaker, regardless of whether you have a film premiering at the festival or not. The films we screen are extreme in their genres and intended to inspire budding filmmakers to pick up a camera.
You can be a film fan, a cultural enthusiast, a film student – you can be anyone! Raindance is not exclusive, we premiere feature films, documentaries, shorts, VR and webseries tackling genres as broad and diverse as LGBT, the refugee crisis and mental health issues.
What do you look for in entries?
Elliot Grove: We had an astonishing number of submissions from 133 countries in 2017 – a sum total of some four million minutes. This is almost as many as the highly regarded SWSX festival in Austin, though not as many as Sundance. We are only showing 65,000 minutes. We look for extreme films, and by that I mean: extreme topics, extreme filmmaking techniques and because it’s Raindance – extremely entertaining.
Have you got a favourite film or films from the festival over the years?
Elliot Grove: It’s really hard for me to single out a single film. There have been so many debut films by filmmakers of acclaim,. People like Christopher Nolan’s first film, The Following, for instance. The Raindance team and I champion new and undiscovered talent. I think of each of the films we’ve screened like my children and it would be wrong to single one of them out.
What are your own personal highlights from the festival so far? Any judges or attendees you were really excited to meet?
Elliot Grove: Being at the stage in life when I remember too clearly the punk rockers of old, meeting Mick Jones of The Clash is definitely up there in terms of personal highlights. He was on the jury the year we showed the Irish film ONCE (now a West End musical). A particular thrill was meeting him in Soho a couple weeks later when he said ‘You know that song ‘Falling Slowly?’ I just can’t get it out of my head!’ That song went on to win the Oscar for best song. It was also a real pleasure and honour to interview Julian Assange back in 2013.
What is the hardest part of running a festival?
Elliot Grove: OMG – which part to you want to know about? There are five equally difficult strands to running a fest. The call for submissions and with it, the importance of maintaining the festival’s brand. Then there is the viewing and programming. Equally challenging and demanding is the scheduling and dealing with the filmmakers and their guests. Next is running the actual event – and making sure that the festival goers’ experience is fantastic, and finally there is the marketing and promotion of the festival.
Elliot Grove: Each of these areas demand very different skills. Fortunately Raindance has a fantastic team that manage these different but equally important areas.
Working so hard, what gives you the most pleasure?
Elliot Grove: There is nothing that beats the closing credits of a film in front of an audience that has never heard of the filmmaker or the film and hearing applause. It makes me well up. All the effort has been worthwhile. And then seeing the filmmaker congratulated by the audience members. It’s why our tagline has always been: ‘Discover. Be Discovered’.
Have you ever felt like giving up?
Elliot Grove: In 1998 I went to Sony for sponsorship. A mate told me they sponsored live events. Wrong! I was told they would only sponsor an event that was ten years old. So I went back after five more long and lean years in 2003. Wrong! I was told they no longer sponsored festivals.
Bitter as that was, I had to remember the wise adage:
Winners never quit.
Quitters never win.
You have to remember that no one in the industry thought Raindance would last a minute. We were, as Ken Loach called us back then, “very scrappy.”
I guess my approach was channelling the American comic, Dennis Leary: Take each day one beer at a time. Take each beer one sip at a time”
If you had to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Elliot Grove: I probably wouldn’t do it! I had no idea the amount of energy it would take. But give me what I know now, and let me role the dice and go way back to 1993, I think I would have spent more time getting my marketing right, and preserving the archives. There are entire years missing from the Raindance archives.
Why does Raindance give awards?
Elliot Grove: We never used to give awards until a filmmaker submitted a film and claimed to have won an award two years earlier. I called her up and asked why she had claimed to win an award when in fact we never gave any. She replied that I had sent her an invoice for the festival submissions and she considered that an award.
I then realised that she was marketing the festival by claiming she had won an award. And it was also helping her career.
Thus was born the Raindance Awards, and with it our Jury.
You have always had great campaign images and festival trailers
Elliot Grove: I have been unbelievably lucky in my time at Raindance. I get to do what I love every single day. I also get to meet some of the most talented filmmakers, screewriters and visual artists you could ever want to see. I’ve been overwhelmed by their generosity, and outstanding creativity. And the results, I think you will agree, are some of the most powerful campaign images, as well as some of the very best festival traillers in the entire world. You can see all the trailers here.
This year we commissioned Dave McKean to create the campaign image. It’s the 7th time Dave has made an image for us.
What are you most looking forward to in this year’s festival?
Elliot Grove: Meet me at the Vue Leicester Square, the home of the Raindance Film Festival, and I will be the fatigued-and-harried one in the corner having a series of palpitations hoping that the audiences will love the same films as I and the Raindance Team have chosen.
We sleep when it’s over.
How did you get a postgraduate film degree?
Elliot Grove: I have always had a dream that education should be project and work based. Fortunately Staffordshire University agreed and we were able to launch probably the most flexible and useful postgrad film degree in the world. I am really proud of it. We’ve also launched the Fast Track as well, for filmmakers and screenwriters who need a serious kick in the butt to get their projects made.
What advice would you give to a filmmaker starting out?
Elliot Grove: First, you need a story. Then you need to think about your personal branding. And then you need to make movies. Filmmakers make films, whatever the budget. If you aren’t making films, you aren’t learning. And you aren’t a filmmaker.
What are you looking forward to?
Elliot Grove: I want to make more movies. We have more in the pipeline. Raindance has always been about making movies. And as these movie ideas come to fruition I will be fascinated to see what impact VR has on the moving images.
Where would you like to see Raindance in five years?
Elliot Grove: I don’t see Raindance as getting larger, I see it as this chic boutique where you go to get something truly memorable. Fortunately I am surrounded by a terrific team who get this, and whoa are far better than I am to execute.
Any predictions from Elliot Grove?
Elliot Grove: Following in the footsteps of past Raindance alumni, Christopher Nolan, Edgar Wright, David Yates and Guy Ritchie, I think the next big film talent is more likely to come from someone reading this article than from the hallowed halls of traditional, and conventional, academia. The film industry is changing dramatically right now, but we are yet to have the prophetic vision of someone like the person who invented sound or colour. When that person comes along they will grab all the headlines. And that person could be you.
And please tell your friends about the film festival!