We spoke to Neil Johns, co-founder and chair of Free Film Festivals, about the challenges of and reasons for putting on a free film festival in a city where the average cinema ticket price last year was £11.78 (Stephen Follows).
Why spend months planning a film
festival and then give it away for free?
It’s OK to cry during a film, of course, but how about when
you’re talking to the event organisers afterwards?
We’d just finished our free screening of Bugsy Malone on Nunhead Green when a
woman and her young daughter came over to where I was packing away the projector.
It had been a really good crowd. We’d put up a big screen especially for the
event. People had brought picnics and there’d been a massive round of applause at
She told me her family had only been living in the area a
few months and tonight was the first time she’d really felt at home. She wanted
to say thanks. I didn’t know her story or where she had come from but the tears
in her eye showed how much the event had meant to her. It was hard not to feel
Image credit: Electric Pedals
Cinemas for a day
Bringing people together for a local shared film experience is
what Free Film Festivals is all about. We turn local venues into a cinema for
the day – from pubs and community centres to parks, cafes and even a cemetery.
It all started when three of us got together in Peckham,
south London, in 2010. We loved film. We loved our neighbourhood. We wanted to tie
the two things together and make everything free – so everyone could come along.
The first Peckham &
Nunhead Free Film Festival included screenings on a
multi-storey car park roof, in a wildlife garden and at Soutwark Asian Centre.
Over 400 people came to our outdoor screening of A Matter of Life and Death in Nunhead cemetery. People were
scrambling over the walls to get in. Since then the festival’s happened every year, with new people coming
forward each time to help.
The idea soon spread to New Cross & Deptford,
Herne Hill and
each planned by their own team of volunteers. They came up with ideas like bike-powered
screenings and ‘shorts’ evenings for local filmmakers. A screening of Buster
Keaton’s The General on a big screen outside
Herne Hill train station, with a live piano soundtrack, was one of my
Today there are 12 Free Film Festivals. We’ve screened over 200 films this year in parks,
shops, schools, a lido, churches, hospitals, libraries, cafes, pubs, a football
club and even the Salvation Army training college. There were filmmaking
competitions and animation workshops too.
Why people volunteer
Film Festival. “Something that started as just an
idea has become a real crowd pleaser and the sense of pride continues on long
after the festival is over. We have all made new relationships within the
community, including with local businesses. Two of our volunteers have gone on
to start a film production company together. And everyone’s had fun with it,
including dressing up for PR events on the high street!”
Projectionist Fazhan Ahmad started volunteering a couple of
years ago. “It’s a good way to make a lot of people very happy,” he says. “I
like the techie side of it but really it’s about creating something that everyone
can enjoy because you don’t have to pay.”
Things can sometimes go wrong, of course. When our generator
failed in the middle of an outdoor screening, a neighbour opened her back door
and let us use her power supply. And when the bluray of ET was mislaid minutes before an outdoor screening we just asked
the audience if anyone had a copy at home and could pop back to get it. Fortunately
someone had (and did). It’s not great for the organiser’s blood pressure but
for the audience it’s another way to get involved!
So how do we keep it all free? Volunteers apply for small
grants from their local council or Film London, for example, and we’ve also
been known to shake a bucket to help raise a few quid towards future events. Some
Free Film Festivals crowdfund or hold fundraising screenings too.
have had the confidence to start a festival in my area without meeting the Free
Film Festivals family,” says Mike Cooper of the new Guildford Free Film Festival, which starts next year. “Knowing
that there is such a wealth of experience and knowledge to fall back on swung
it for me. Even though the problems I'll face may be different from those in
London because of the nature of operating in a medium sized market town rather
than in the metropolis, it gave me great confidence knowing I can ping off an
email or pick up the phone and at least be pointed in the right direction.”
“I like staying up
People love Free Film Festivals events for all sorts of
reasons and get in touch to say so. “Really amazing idea.” “Loved the film choices and venue setting.” “I like
staying up late and eating popcorn” (Lois, 6).
The audience at our screenings aren’t consumers or customers.
They are as much part of the event as the film they are watching. Perhaps
that’s why the woman and her daughter in Nunhead felt so at home.
Neil Johns is co-founder and chair of Free Film Festivals (www.freefilmfestivals.org).