Founder of Raindance, Elliot Grove, in his own words, talks about how a Mennonite unable to watch any film or TV growing up went on to create the UK’s largest and most important independent film festival.
“You wouldn’t want to be caught in a movie theatre when Jesus comes back, would you?” I was born into an Amish Mennonite family in Ontario and I was forbidden to go to the movie theatre because “the devil lived there”.
One hot August day, I was sent to the local village to buy a part we needed on the farm. It was going to be a three-hour wait, and given that it was a sunny afternoon I did what every 16-year-old does with a few coins in their pocket I went to see what the devil looked like.I paid 99 cents and walked into a room that looked a lot like a church with chairs lined up to face the front. Remember – I had no idea what at a movie was – I had been told never to go to the movies. After sitting down, the lights went out, the curtains opened and the first face of the devil I saw at the tender age of 16 was Lassie Comes Home. I cried like a baby and when it finished, ran up to touch the screen to see if I could feel the texture of his fur. I was totally hooked!
Years later, I found myself in London at a loose end. I had lost everything in the 1991 property crash and was feeling down. An elderly friend saw me moping around and told me “no doctor in the world can cure you as long as you are feeling sorry for yourself Elliot Grove.” I sought his advice and he said, “Do what you love”
I had absolutely no film training, background or any sense of the entertainment industry but I loved movies. Lassie Comes Home had made an impact. With this in mind, I started Raindance, essentially as a thought experiment. Can you make movies without any experience, any training or any money? A whole bunch of people at that time were making movies for next-to-nothing. Screenwriters, directors, producers and actors – Paul Brooks (Producer of My Big Fat Greek Wedding) came to early events as did producer Jeremy Bolt (Resident Evil). Edgar Wright was my first intern – he made Fistful of Fingers. Christopher Nolan made The Following. A lot of micro budget films that had yet to achieve the same level of critical or financial success.
Raindance became a good case study of what happens to a disruptor, an early success followed by industry distain, a long period of struggles for financial stability and acceptance. Then, a final period where new disruptors emerge to challenge the establishment.
Perhaps the fact I had no training or experience had helped me. It has forced me to become an early adopter and innovator and this has made Raindance unique in the festival world where so many have failed.
I figured that in order for a film festival to succeed you needed two things: talent and money. I knew there were a lot of international industry types in London on the third week of October – the week between MIP-TV and a now defunct film market MIFED. I sited Raindance in October knowing the film executives wouldn’t be able to resist screenings of some brand-new films. My next challenge was to get the talent.
Twenty-five years is a very long time for a film festival to survive. When I started Raindance one pretty much needed a million. All films then was shot 35mm, went to cinemas, then home video and after that track investors would have a decent chance of recouping.
Since then, there has been the digital revolution impacting not only film production but distribution as well.
One thing remains and it will never change. People ask me what kinds of films make it into the Raindance Film Festival. It’s simple; an extreme story or topic, extreme filmmaking techniques and because story is everything at Raindance – it has to be extremely good.
My Ten Most Memorable Experiences in 25 Years at Raindance…
1. 1993 – launch and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape world premiere
In May of 1993, I got a hold of a bent copy of the Variety product guide from Cannes. I circled the names of a hundred films I thought would fit Raindance. I booked the Prince Charles for evening screenings and the original Planet Hollywood in Piccadilly for daytime screenings. I drew up a one page press release and faxed it at a pound a throw to the hundred film companies, held my breath, and half of them came, including What’s Eating Gilbert Grape – the world premiere.
We attracted films like this because we were in a sweet week between MIP-Com in Cannes and a now-defunct film-market in Milan called MIFED. This meant acquisition executives would attend meaning the festival would have not only talent, but money for the world premiere.
2. 1995 – going (nearly) broke
I have always struggled to get industry support. Being a disruptor meant I never had the startup capital one would normally expect, nor the pedigree you need to sway the gatekeepers of the publicly funded film funds. I suppose they weren’t contemporary enough to realize that an international film festival with a vibrant film market in London was viable. And in 1995 – the perilous year three I nearly went broke. So broke in fact that numerous of the screenings were in a basement of a pub in Soho projected onto a bed sheet.
2a. 1995 – website launch
Raindance website – one of the first in the UK – a four-page affair that showed ‘Where we were’, ‘What we were screening’, ‘How to get tickets’ and ‘About Raindance’.
3. 1998 – the British Independent Film Awards
Still smarting from the lack of formal industry acceptance (apart from Ken Loach, Mike Figgis and Mike Leigh), these, highly respected filmmakers loved what I was trying to do, even though Ken kept referring to Raindance as ‘scruffy’. It was because of Ken I started to pay more attention to our branding and design. I decided to throw a party to celebrate all the fresh bold talent I was seeing. I knew that to attract talent I had to give awards. The next question was what to call it. I had already decided on ‘Independent Film Awards and threw in the word British as an afterthought. Eddie Izzard and Keith Allen were the hosts and the event, which was a great success. Eddie frequented the Raindance office – his office was next door and he was breaking into movies at the time. Getting Eddie was an easy task. One of our interns was friends with Lily Allen so getting her dad was dead simple. It’s not what you know it’s whom you know!
Three weeks later I got a letter from Parliament stating that I had no right to use the hot word ‘British’ without consent. I gathered about thirty letters of support from the good and the great of the industry including Ken Loach and Mike Leigh and sure enough, nine months later got permission to call the event the British Independent Film Awards – now in its 20th year.
4. 1998 – first cinema trailer
I commissioned and produced the first Raindance cinema advert, which Pearl and Dean played in over 100 cinemas.
5. 1999 – The Blair Witch Project and the Digital Revolution
The first festival screening of The Blair Witch Project in Europe. At this time Pathe, whom owned the European rights, sold the film to Germany. Their distributor attended the screening. The directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez were there at the celebrity studded screening. Friends have told me that attending the screening was a bit like visiting Madame Tussauds.
1999 was a pivotal year. The digital revolution was gaining momentum. Although the festival was only a half-dozen years old, I knew that in order to survive, Raindance needed to innovate. Luckily, I bumped into Mike Figgis at the British Independent Film Awards that year and he suggested a great pop-up cinema idea to show films made on next-to-nothing. I agreed this was a great idea and for many months that winter, Mike, myself and others like Ewan Macgregor met at our humble basement Soho office to plan. In the end the idea was dropped, although I still think it is a very timely idea.
6. 2000 – Memento & Christopher Nolan
Another first was showing Memento here in London. Christopher Nolan was the Filmmaker in Residence that year.
7. 2007 – “Once” & Mick Jones of The Clash
I watched Once – the Irish no-budget film that became the Broadway musical hit with Mick Jones of The Clash. I had met Mick through one of our programmers who had befriended Mick at one of his private gigs. Mick loves working with new talent and is a film fan. That year Gibson Guitars was a sponsor and gave us their top guitar to give away at Opening Night. I asked Mick if he’d give it away but he refused. However, as the lucky winner was coming down from the circle, Mick leaped up and presented the guitar as it was a copy of the very one he had learned on. He had told me after the screening that the song Falling Slowly just kept playing in his head and of course that was the song that went on to win the Oscar.
2007 was also the year that Raindance intern Ivanna Mackinnon left Raindance. She’s the daughter of Giles Mackinnon and Ivanna ended up at F4 and it was there that she started working on the film that became Slumdog Millionaire.
8. 2011 – launch of Postgraduate Degree
Raindance has always been considered a leader in innovative film training. We launched the postgraduate degree with partners Staffordshire University and it has quickly become pride of fleet for it’s ability to offer each of the 200+ students an individual pathway to create scripts, movies, web series and VR.
9. 2013 – launch of Web Fest
When the team and I noticed a proliferation of web series, we decided to launch Web Fest – at the time the first in Europe.
9a. 2014 – Filmmakers Ball
Knowing from the success of the British Independent Film Awards how much filmmakers love to party, the team and I launched the Filmmakers Ball, both in London two weeks before Cannes, and in Toronto during TIFF.
10. 2016 – launched VRX
The emergence of Virtual Reality (VR) was the most significant advancement in filmmaking technology since the marriage of sound to picture a hundred years ago. The VRX was launched in September, 2016 at the 24th Raindance Film Festival and now has expanded with it’s very own VRX Awards as well as a budding reputation as the go to training organization of VR in all of it’s shapes and forms.
Written by Elliot Grove
What started as an experiment for founder Elliot is now a successful independent festival that is allowing emerging filmmakers the opportunity to learn and showcase their work. Raindance Film Festival, UK’s largest and most important independent film festival is celebrating 25 years (2017). For more info please go to http://www.raindance.org