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Saturday 30 September 2023 Dublin: 9°C
# the irish abroad
It's not all glamour (but you might see George Clooney): Irish filmmakers on international festivals
We talked to Irish filmmakers and the Irish Film Board about why it’s worth it.

ATTENDING AN INTERNATIONAL film festival as an Irish filmmaker might seem like a glamorous task: hobnob with stars for a week, go see lots of new films, and maybe even spot George Clooney while you’re there.

Well, you might spot George Clooney (as this photo below from Julianne Forde, producer from Tailored Films, shows), but you’ll also spend much of your time in meetings trying to line up distributors, sales agents or funding for your next film.

36978102362_91a319cedb_z (1) Julianne Forde Spot George Clooney... Julianne Forde

Louise Ryan of the Irish Film Board (IFB) attends many festivals during the year, including Cannes. For her, the recent Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) showed just how much Irish film has been progressing.

“There were eight Irish films at Tiff this year, and five directed by women,” she tells “It definitely exceeded expectations.” The IFB works hard to create longlasting relationships with the festival organisers, inviting them to visit Ireland and keeping them up-to-date with film projects.

“Major international film festivals are really important because there are so many films being produced internationally, and what they serve as is a launch pad to begin your sales and distribution strategy,” says Ryan. “It’s even very hard to get a sales agent without festival selection.”

She says that “behind every major festival is a market”, with buying and selling of all the films that are being screened, and the finance for future projects being sought.

Tiff is usually seen as the beginning of awards season – for example, Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, picked up an audience award in Toronto before going on to scoop an Academy Award.

Festivals are sent thousands of films for consideration, so when an Irish film gets picked, it’s a huge boost.

This year, Aoife McArdle’s Kissing Candice did really well at Tiff, says Ryan, even though it was made on a tiny budget.

Another Irish film, The Breadwinner, from Nora Twomey, was also well-received at Tiff. It’s hoped that the Breadwinner will get an Oscar nomination.

Ryan says that it’s important to pick the right festival for your film. “If you are a much smaller film and get into Cannes you could get eaten by critics,” she points out.

Filmmakers need to be strategic about entering festivals and festival categories. Sundance tends to be a more indie festival, and having an Irish documentary featured at Sundance is a particular boost. Recent ones that did well were It’s Not Yet Dark and In Loco Parentis.

36773112340_6012c7cd8f_z Julianne Forde of Tailored Films at Tiff

Tailored Films is an Irish production company that brought its film The Lodgers to Tiff last month. “There were 60 less films in Toronto this year that previous years,” says producer Julianne Forde. “They got rid of a whole section, Vanguard, so it was even more competitive than before.”

As The Lodgers is a gothic ghost story, they were delighted to be put in the Contemporary World Cinema section.

“We wanted to make a film that would crossover to a mainstream audience, and the fact we got into this section really meant we achieved what we set out to do,” says Forde.

Why are international film festivals so important to companies like Tailored Films?

“There’s so many more movies made nowadays than even 20 years ago, and for distributors it’s like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” says Forde.

These curated festivals become even more important than before. It gives the film a stamp of approval – that this is good.

“You use it with a view to your next project but it is the best launch pad you can imagine to be in a big competition like that,” she says of festivals.

As for the glamour? “I did see George Clooney walking down the road,” she laughs.

For me, you don’t get to watch that many films because you can maybe access them at another point. It’s all about meeting people and using your time there to have meetings and network.

As a producer, the main bit of preparation Forde has to do for such festivals is set up meetings. “There is a huge amount of research into who is going to be there and who is there, and who could you meet with with a view to working with in the future, usually in a co-production capacity.”

Ryan says that it takes weeks of preparation before filmmakers head to the festival.  ”You have six – eight weeks to get this right,” she says. “You are competing with everyone internationally for the best sales agent and best publicist. There is a huge amount of work involved over there. You’ve got to be ready.”

It’s all about “thinking of different ways in which you can stand out and make it work” – like making sure the stars of your film are going.

“It does get a bit crazy and it’s not glamorous for sure,” says Ryan. “But if you have a film in it, it is amazing. The Toronto audiences are the best in the world. Showing your film in front of a Toronto audience is amazing.”

“It was an affirming thing for me”

The BFI London Film Festival opened this week, and an Irish film getting its premiere there is The Drummer and the Keeper.

Its director, Nick Kelly, tells that festivals were also important for his previous, smaller, projects, like Shoe, and Why The Irish Dance That Way.

“International festivals were incredibly important to me because until I got recognition internationally it didn’t really happen here,” he says.

Kelly, former member of The Fat Lady Sings, has been making films since 2003, starting with the short Delphine. He’s also made numerous ads.

Kelly says that festivals can be a bit glamorous – especially as with filmmaking “you spend so much of your life by yourself in a darkened room”. Getting selected for a festival shows “you’re not completely a non-entity – it’s nice to be special”, says Kelly.

“I think the biggest thing for me is to feel that you’re on somebody’s wavelength is huge,” adds Kelly. “[Filmmaking is] very insecure, matching the level of effort to the level of output – much more so than making a record or anything.”

So the biggest thing for me about international film festivals was I suddenly realised there are other people out there who are getting what you’re doing somehow.

He wrote the script for Shoe after writing two previous short films that had no dialogue. After getting rejected for funding from the Irish Film Board, he put the script in a drawer for two years. But then he entered it into a script competition at the Vale Colorado Film Festival – and won.

“There is a sort of objectivity about the international festival thing and you learn so much going to them,” he says. At Vale, for example, he learned that many of his fellow filmmakers had to turn to their parents’ “10 richest friends” or remortgage their homes in order to finance their films – there was no film board.

He also found that going to festivals helped him learn new things about the industry, and new skills.

Whenever he writes a script, Kelly says that in his head he sets it in Bristol or New Jersey – outside of Ireland. ”I don’t want anything to be just about Irishness,” he says.

Ireland vs the World

The Irish Film Board will be at London Film Festival to support the films it works with.

What do people abroad tend to think of Irish film? “We’d have a very strong reputation for talent and a wide variety of talent,” says Ryan. “For a small country we are really exceeding expectations for what the norm would be.”

Epic Pictures Group / YouTube

This is despite the fact Ireland’s film industry is a young one. “You really see the growth,” says Ryan.

“I’ve been doing this job a long time and it’s got a lot easier. The films that are being made, there’s so much great work coming out.”

Although there might be years where there are no Irish films selected for certain festivals, over the last three-quarters of a decade the showing has been strong.

“When you see the number of films that came through – they’re not just one-offs,” says Ryan.

Years ago we’d have one big hit a year but we’re having a much more wide and varied catalogue of content now. But that comes from the sustained long-term investment in talent over a long period of time. It doesn’t happen overnight and doesn’t happen by accident.

Kelly says that he’s noticed in the last 20 years there has been less “looking over each other’s shoulders”.

“I do think as an artist in Ireland I do sort of feel still getting affirmation outside of Ireland, maybe I shouldn’t care so much about it but it does matter to me, it reassures me that I’m doing something right,” he adds.

37302018355_97af0b9a19_z Julianne Forde, The Lodger cast and crew at Tiff. Julianne Forde,

“I definitely think everybody should go for it,” says Forde of entering festivals. “If you’re not in you can’t win. Bottom line is the curators of these festivals are looking for good films.”

But though festivals can be addictive, Nick Kelly says that filmmakers need to know when to “step away from the glamour and get back to the cork board with all the index cards”.

Otherwise, that next film might never get made.

Read: How the Facebook page Oh My God, What A Complete Aisling became a publishing phenomenon>

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