It’s no secret that Tunbridge Wells has a thriving music scene, but what about its budding movie business? Continuing our look at the town’s culture, we speak to writer/director/producer Samuel Marlow, whose Electric Lantern International Film Festival provides a leading platform for film-making talent and cinemagoers to enjoy alternative, independent content at Trinity Theatre.
Tell us about the background of the festival
It started in 2008 with me and a friend, Anthony Jarman. We were both frustrated about the lack of a local film scene, so we put our heads together and thought putting on a film festival would be a nice thing to do. That ran for a couple of years until 2010, when Anthony was unable to carry on. I then revived it with local PR company Torpedo Juice and in 2011, we had a huge inaugural Electric Lantern Festival, which covered film, art, photography, music and live performance.
So is it more than just a film festival?
The most successful one so far was when I put it completely on track as film. The music scene is very well covered and there are plenty of other exhibitions and things going on, but film is where there’s a gap. So we decided to focus exclusively on motion pictures in 2013, which was far and away the best one. The plan prior to that had always been for it to be a showcase for local filmmakers from Kent and East Sussex, but what I did in 2013 was actually throw it completely open, so it became an international film festival.
Do filmmakers have to pay to screen their work?
Electric Lantern doesn’t charge a submission fee. A lot of film festivals charge £20 for a short, which isn’t a lot of money, but if you’re submitting to ten festivals and you’re only a little movie, just submitting can suddenly equal the budget. And because I’m not paying people to exhibit their films, making it free for them to exhibit is fair.
Where do you get your funding?
It’s largely self-funded, which is why I had to take a year off in 2012, because most of it’s my money. There’s hope and expectation that I’ll grow it to a point where I can attract sponsors and things like that. I’ve gone down the route of trying to get public grants before and I’ve applied for funding from the council, who have been quite generous; but while I could get little bits from them, which adds up to a fair amount, it’s not nearly enough to cover the costs, unfortunately.
How much does it cost to put on?
Trinity Theatre are very generous, but I have to hire the theatre space from them outright, so that in itself is about £3,000. By the time I’ve taken everything into account, it ends up being about £4,000 per event, depending on the scale. Obviously, there are no salaries, I do it on a voluntary basis.
Do you have a team of volunteers?
No I don’t, mainly because the work is so sporadic, it’s difficult to find a team of volunteers willing to work on a two-days-every-three-weeks basis. When I’ve had volunteers on before, their workload has fluctuated, which means sometimes they’re sitting around twiddling their thumbs and sometimes they’re too busy to help, so at least if I do it all myself, I know what my availability is.
What are some of the main challenges you face?
Beyond funding, it’s finding an audience. I know they’re out there and a lot of people come, but making people aware of it is difficult. Finding a venue that’s up to spec is the biggest one because I want people to see the films in really high quality, and Trinity is the only place locally with the equipment to do it.
Is there a big market for independent film in Tunbridge Wells?
I continue to do research into it – Screen International published a survey a couple of years ago looking at demographics of various events, and independent film was far and away the most representative group. They tend to be more mature than your general cinema-going audience – in their 30s, 40, 50s and even 60s, rather than teenagers and people in their 20s, who you would tend to see at the Odeon.
How about getting in that younger audience as well?
I’d love everyone to come. We did a couple of family screenings at the previous festival, short animations and comedies, so we got some families with young kids. A lot of the screenings were rated PG or 12, but then we had some that were 15 and 18 as well. When Anthony and I started the festival, there was the assumption there were going to be a lot of students, but it’s far and away people in their later 20s and upwards. I would love to have younger people.
Are there specific films or genres that tend to attract your audience?
They like to see something new, something they’ve not seen before. That was one of the great things about making it international last time – it was kind of weird and counterintuitive because the films were all completely different, but what was lovely was that you could see a lot of overlap. Although people were coming from very different angles, it was great because we had films from countries actually at war with each other – to put those on next to each other gives you a degree of hope for humanity.
Which countries do the films come from?
We have submissions from Indonesia, Brazil, Australia, Iran, Israel, Russia, the Ukraine, Germany, Canada – and the nearest one was from Tunbridge Wells, so it’s real extremes! We screened 60 films in total from 18 countries and 40 of them were world or UK premieres.
What are your thoughts on Tunbridge Wells culture in general?
I have a lot of hope for it; there are an awful lot of very talented people around. The strength of the talent is certainly as strong as Brighton, and while I don’t think it’s as near the surface, the quality of the town is very high. There are an awful lot of one-man bands, which is the biggest problem, so rather than being able to pool our resources, there are a lot of people operating in isolation, and I’m one of them.
Why do you think that is?
Because it’s not a creative economy here in the same way as it is in somewhere like Brighton
or some of the other Kent towns, it’s hard to find places to congregate. If you come here and scratch the surface, the artistic scene is very evident, but it presents itself in a very different way. I don’t actually know what the demographic of the town is; I know a lot of people think of it as very middle-class and middle-aged, but there are a lot of young people operating out of here, or else come here because it’s a convenient hub. I certainly don’t think it’s in crisis and know there are a lot of people trying to move things along. I have hopes, but there’s a long way to go.
Could film compete with our thriving music scene?
I would like it to. The advantage the music scene has over motion picture is that it’s far easier to do music as a one-man band, or else get a small group of people together. That isn’t to say it isn’t an awful lot of hard work, but weeks of planning can go into a day’s shoot. Finding people with the skills is also a challenge because a lot of the skills in motion picture are very specialised and don’t necessarily lend themselves to something else. I don’t have much of a music background, but I think moviemaking’s probably more expensive than music.
Do you find being so close to London a challenge when engaging audiences?
It can either be a challenge or an opportunity. Yes, there’s a huge cultural drain out of Tunbridge Wells to both London and Brighton, but on the other hand, they could be markets. While it’s very easy to get to London from here, it’s also very easy to get here from London.
I know a lot of people who live and work in London, but moved out here because there’s good culture in a nice environment.
Where would you like things to go in the future?
One of the things that surprised me last time was how many people came to everything, or at least the vast majority of stuff, so Trinity and I have discussed taking the same amount of content and spreading it out over a longer timescale. Rather than having a film festival in the traditional sense, it would be turned into an independent film season, so if people want to come to everything, that’s far more of a possibility. Trinity now is so successful that finding a gap in the schedule where we can put that in is proving to be difficult; they’ve been very supportive and very positive about it, but it’s not a big money spinner for them, unfortunately.
Any plans to take the festival further afield?
The whole point of doing it was so that Tunbridge Wells has a film festival, so if I was to take it anywhere else, I would be bringing them something they already have. The point of having it here was that we don’t have something like that, and I feel like we should.
ELECTRIC LANTERN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
SCREENING VENUE: Trinity Theatre, Tunbridge Wells
TEL: 01892 554 171
FILM CONTENT: Short and feature length dramas, comedies, documentaries, animation, music video
SPONSOR: Depth of Focus