Anyone who makes a film wants to reach an audience with that film.
Through an accident of creative preference I have directed three
'family' films and am now trying (and trying, and trying) to make my
next 'family' film. But when dealing with potential investors I feel I
am cast as Faye Dunaway to Jack Nicholson in the confession scene from
"It's for young people," I say.
"It's for adults," I say.
"It's for young people AND for adults," I say.
While Denmark sets aside 25% of its film funds for the development and
making of family films, in Ireland and the UK there is no discernible
policy on family films. The result is that adult audiences are free to
select from a variety of films in multiplexes and arthouses but young
people and families get one diet only; the latest roller coaster ride
from Hollywood. I call it the McDonaldisation of family films. How
original of me.
The problem is simple - there is no equivalent of an arthouse outlet
for the family films that are not backed by huge publicity machines.
The result is that family audiences rarely get the opportunity to see
complex or difficult - or just plain different - topics dealt with
through film. And so young people start to see film as a fairground
ride rather than part of their education and growth. But I love film
and I aspire to encouraging a higher opinion of the medium - I just
wish it wasn't always an uphill battle trying to get my work to my
audience. For the most part, young people only get a sense of the
diversity of film through the few film festivals dedicated to them and
that's one of the reasons why 'junior' film festivals are so important.
But this is the story of another way of bringing non-mainstream family
films to their audience.
My first film, 'The Boy from Mercury', died the death at the Irish box
office. It has lived on in cinemas here, however, through the work of
the Film Institute of Ireland. The film has often been screened in the
Cinemobile, and Alicia McGivern of the Institute had drawn up an
education pack for 'Mercury' that is used for school screenings at the
Irish Film Centre. The film has been used in education in the UK also,
and Louise Wordsworth of UK Film Education had drawn up an education
pack to accompany it there
The last film I directed, 'The Testimony of Taliesin Jones', has opened
my eyes to the difficulty of my chosen career path. The film has some
very fine credentials. It won Best Film at the Austin Film Festival and
many other awards in the US and across Europe. It has a fine cast -
including Jonathan Pryce, and the late Ian Bannen in his last role. It
is being released in the US by its producers, who see a particular way
to market it and are finding slow success there. But there were no
takers for release in the UK. Why? It's about a marriage break-up. It's
about a boy discovering his sense of spirituality. It's for young
people. It's for adults. It's for young people AND for adults. It's a
Enter Mairi Thomas, Cinema Development Officer at Dundee Contemporary
Arts in Scotland. Mairi saw 'Taliesin' - and became its advocate.
With 'Taliesin', Mairi Thomas devised an education pack in conjunction
with 'Showcomotion' in Sheffield (organised by Becky Parry). The pack
was put on Film Education's website as part of the October 2001
National Schools Film Week
(www.filmeducation.org/primary/archive/taliesinjones/index.html) and a
screening of 'Taliesin' launched the annual event. So, for its many
school screenings thereafter, the teachers could first download the
education pack and incorporate that into the screening and discussions
afterwards. The whole experience (I have attended many such screenings)
is always enjoyed by the young audiences. Indeed, after a screening at
the Showcomotion event in Sheffield, I received a screenplay written by
a fourteen year old Asian girl who had been moved by the film and come
up with a film idea of her own.
Through these school screenings I was learning about a film culture
oasis for young people. There were fine people at work out there -
people like Louise, Alicia, and Mairi - who were committed to bringing
a broader spectrum of film to the experience of young people.
The Film Institute of Ireland has hosted many school screenings of
'Taliesin' - including a few in the Cinemobile. Meanwhile, Maretta
Dillon, with the newly formed Access Cinema network of Irish arthouse
screens, procured an 'education' certificate from the Film Censor's
office - a cheap way of facilitating the certification of a family
film. Access Cinema has brought the film to many arthouse venues around
Ireland and I have attended as many of these screenings as possible.
The arthouse is becoming the only hope of getting a film that does not
have a significant marketing budget onto a cinema screen. Here is a
place where people get a chance to see something outside the
mainstream. But something else is going on with some of them. The Irish
Film Centre, for instance, prints its monthly programme of events -
world cinema brought to Dublin audiences. Meanwhile, it is quietly
introducing many hundreds of school-going teens to new film experiences
through the morning screenings organised by the education section of
the Film Institute of Ireland.
That model - the film centre - is repeated in varying forms throughout
this country and throughout the UK. Dundee Contemporary Arts is a
fascinating culture zone with exhibition space, artists' work space,
cafe, and two cinemas all under one roof. Mairi Thomas kept contacting
me to find out what was happening for the theatrical release of
'Taliesin'. But I kept hearing from the sales agent that no distributor
wanted to take the film. They felt it would be difficult to market.
Because? It's for young.... you know the routine.
Enter the Dundee Experiment.....
Mairi took a few basic steps. Dundee Contemporary Arts decided to run
'Taliesin' for a week. And they had a plan. They would invite school
bookings to coincide with the week of 'open' screenings. So the film
would be shown to young people. And to adults. An arthouse drawing the
attention of its diverse audiences to a family film.
The publicity department of DCA went to work attracting interest in the
film. This proved to be an unexpectedly easy task, as the media were
interested in the idea of a non-mainstream family film being brought to
its audience with the help of an arthouse. It was the first lesson I
learned - the media is sympathetic to the struggle of the small film
against the Hollywood goliaths.
Another important help was one of expediency. The Irish Film Centre
does not include its school screenings in its monthly programme,
whereas DCA has one programme for all events. This meant that the
school screenings were not 'ghettoised' and indeed some adults attended
the school screenings.
Well in advance of the week of screenings, Mairi talked to Dundee's
religious and moral education teachers at an education department
network meeting. The teachers were enthusiastic about the topics of the
film and later came to an advance video screening - teachers generally
liking to see the film before the pupils do.
The key ingredient was integration; this was not solely school
screenings or solely 'open' screenings. The result of all this work was
a very successful week of attendances - so successful that DCA will
bring the film back for another week.
That model, repeated in arthouses throughout the UK and Ireland, could
lead to a moderately successful release for a non-mainstream family
film. And - as I have seen with 'The Boy from Mercury' - such films can
come around again and again.
Those of us who feel a pressing need to tell our stories must then find
the appropriate canvas for self-expression. I want to tell stories that
reach a particular audience. Should I be writing short stories? Or
stage plays? Or radio plays? Or TV plays? Or children's novels? I have
done all of the above. What defines the terms required for telling a
story through feature film? Am I only allowed that format if I can tell
a story at the scale of roller coaster ride? I hope not. I am not a
Spielberg. And what happened in Dundee has shown me that there is a
bigger window of opportunity than I had realised now offered to me as a
film maker. I don't have to surrender all dining out to McDonalds. I
have found my way to reach a family audience. That way had been shut
off by those who see an unnatural conflict when a film is for young
people AND adults. It is a way of getting around the fear of difference
that is leading to only bland films reaching mainstream screens.
I understand film - I can make film small and simple. I understand the
new technologies and how they can help us make films at minimal cost.
And now I have seen a way to make films that can be seen by young
people, and by adults, and by families. Maybe, like Faye Dunaway, I can
present my truth - my work. And stop getting slapped for it.
My next feature, the one I am trying (and trying and trying) to get
made, is for a young audience and an adult audience. It is not a
McDonald's movie. But, thanks to Mairi and Dundee Contemporary Arts, I
realise there is a way it can reach its audience. Indeed, I have even
had the good fortune of being able to include the film education people
in my writing of "Jenny's Gift" and have been guided in rewrites by
their comments. This ensures that they feel comfortable when they in
turn present the project to teachers in order to bring the young
audience to the film. It has become a very healthy holistic process.
Contemporary Arts website to learn more.