The Moët British Independent Film Awards are on Sunday December 6th 2015 in London’s fabulous Old Billingsgate Market. And it happens to mark the 18th anniversary of the awards created and founded by Raindance Film Festival’s Elliot Grove and Suzanne Ballantyne.
Grove’s own background couldn’t be further from movies. He was banned from seeing films by his Amish Mennonite family but snuck off to town when he was 16 to see what the devil looked like and to watch Lassie Comes Home. Totally hooked he then left the community and went to art school in Toronto, managing to scrape enough luck together to get set painting jobs on 68 feature films and over 700 shorts and commercials. He moved to London in the mid 1980s.
In 1992, while the British film industry was wallowing in self pity he founded Raindance, first as a film training provider, and then the Raindance Film Festival in 1993. In 1998, with help from a committed few in the film industry he founded the British Independent Film Awards.
We asked him 18 questions about the BIFAs and his views on the state of the British film industry:
What made you start the BIFAs?
What was I thinking? I wondered why no one was shouting about all the new talent that was rushing through the Raindance Film Festival. The Shane Meadows, Edgar Wrights, Christopher Nolans and producers like Paul Brooks were pretty much ignored back then. So I thought – lets start a party for filmmakers, make sure there are lots of refreshments, and throw in a few awards.
It was as simple as that?
It really was. But just because something is simple it doesn’t also mean it’s easy. It couldn’t have happened without the skill of our first producer, Fred Hogge, and the organisational skills of Tessa Collinson, who produced the event along with Johanna von Fischer until 2014.
What was the attitude of the film industry?
Raindance was shunned the first few years by most of its fellow film organisations. But filmmakers, young and old, new and veteran, welcomed and embraced BIFA. This is why I think it has flourished for nearly two decades.
What about the rest of the country?
Fred and I were trying to decide what to call that first year’s awards party. We knew it was to celebrate independent film, and that there would be awards, and that it was taking place in Britain. So we tagged the word ‘British’ in front of ‘Independent Film Awards’.
Boy, was I a baby in the woods. A few weeks after the first awards at the Cafe Royale on Regent Street I got a letter from the Department of Trade and Industry saying I couldn’t just call myself ‘British’ because it was a hot word. I got letters of support from the great and the good, went to Parliament and finally got permission to call ourselves the British Independent Film Awards Limited. We must also be very careful not to be confused with the British International Freight Association.
How is BIFA structured?
It’s essentially non profit. Any money we make goes back into the running of the Awards. Amy Gustin and Deena Wallace are the current directors of the company and make sure it’s run properly, as well as producing the awards. We also have a Board, of which I am a member, and a couple of committees that meet several times a year for advice and guidance. And the screening committee that looks at all the movies and creates a shortlist for the Jury, who decide on the winners!
Award shows are magnets for controversy. What criticism have you received?
I think anyone in the public eye will get loads of criticism. The difference (I hope) is how BIFA responds, reacts and adapts to the well-meaning suggestions and criticisms we get.
What was the biggest challenge in setting up BIFA?
To give the British film industry an awards show they could feel and call their own. And that, I think, BIFA has managed to pull off. The credit for that rests with the tremendously talented and generous people on our board and committees and the administrative and organisational skill of the show’s producers, Amy and Deena.
But how did you get it off the ground, financially?
That first year I went to Film Four and said I needed £5,000. They said that, if BBC Films were in so were they. I trotted over to BBC Films in the David Thompson era and lied and said I had Film Four’s 5K. I got BBC Films for 5K and then went back to Film Four and flashed the BBC cheque under their noses. In North America we call this the ‘hidden chestnut’ – a baseball term referring to faking a throw to the pitcher so you can tag the base runner out.
How did you get such a great Jury in the first year?
I called a meeting early June 1998 of everyone I knew who had good contacts. I promised them the meeting would last one hour – from 6 til 7 – and that I would buy them a drink. The Raindance office at the time was in a basement on Berwick Street. The table was an old door with IKEA trestle horses. But there was wine and it only lasted half an hour. People like Norma Heyman, Michiyo Yoshizaki and Martin Myers got out their little black books and gave Fred and I a terrific list of names. Problem was, they thought I was talking about 1999, and not 1998! But Fred pulled it off in just over 13 weeks.
What are your biggest regrets?
None really. Each year’s event is as different as you can get from the year before. Much of the ambiance of the event comes from the unique chemistry of the people who attend – and it’s a very different crowd year after year. My biggest surprise is that the awards aren’t televised.
OK, why aren’t the awards televised?
Shrug. We have come so close so many times. It’s for the best really, for television with all the commercial and creative constraints would change the event from a family affair to a corporate event. You can always watch online.
Are award shows like BIFA really necessary?
I get asked this all the time – and yes they are. British film is hotter than hot right now, and BIFA shines more light than anything on the British films and filmmakers who struggle so hard to compete with their better-financed American film colleagues.
What is the Discovery Award about?
At each BIFA, Raindance honours filmmakers who are taking risks and doing something new and fantastic, usually for a low budget. The award is meant to highlight innovation, uniqueness of vision, and risk-taking. Filmmakers like Edgar Wright, Gareth Edwards, Guy Ritchie, Nicholas Winding Refn, and Ben Wheatley all have been honoured in years gone by. This year’s Discovery Award nominees are especially strong.
14 . What is the future of British filmmaking?
Britain has too much talent for this tiny island to support, which is why Hollywood is full of British filmmakers. If we can keep developing new writers and directors the future is very bright indeed. If the government keep their hands off arts funding and various tax incentives even brighter still.
What do you see as the future of BIFA?
A great team runs BIFA, so that part is secure. The trick is to balance commercial reality while maintaining what is essentially a family event. And to continue to be bold, fresh innovative and dynamic.
Any ambitions for BIFA moving forward?
The BIFA team has launched some amazing outward-facing activities this year, courtesy of funding from Creative Skillset and the BFI. The Insider Series gives film students a chance to peek behind the black curtain and to learn from experienced experts in the industry. BIFA has also teamed up with theatrical distributors and are offering the British public a unique chance to see these great films in their own town and cities through their screening programmes.
If you had to do it again what would you do differently?
Ah – that old question. It’s tough to second-guess oneself after so many years. I suppose the advent of social media is something BIFA could use a lot better. And making sure the distribution channels of all the wonderful films are firmly open.
What do you say to someone who can’t get a ticket to the event?
No excuses! You can watch the ceremony online here!