Festival Formula interviewed Steve Balshaw, Senior Programmer of Grimmfest, one of the most exciting horror film festivals in the UK. Grimmfest is located in Manchester and has been screening horror films since 2009. From the classic to the independent, to the subtle to the gore, it’s all at Grimmfest.
Tell us about your festival
Grimmfest is a horror, sci-fi and cult film festival based in Manchester, UK. It will have been running for a decade this year, and has long been established as one of the pre-eminent genre festivals in the country. It has an international reputation for pushing the boundaries of genre and focusing on left-field and independent material. The festival offers a platform for the best new genre short and feature films, and every film screened will be some form of premiere – be it regional, UK, European, International, or even World Premiere. Previous Grimmfest highlights range from international successes What We Do in the Shadows, The Babadook, Train to Busan, The Woman and American Mary, to those made closer to home such as Howl, Grabbers, Before Dawn, Let Us Prey and Colin. Over the years we’ve welcomed a vast number of guests, including horror mainstays Robin Hardy (The Wicker Man), Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead, From Beyond), Brian Yuzna (Re-Animator, From Beyond) and Italian soundtrack maestros Goblin, alongside Britain’s own Ross Noble (Stitches), Alice Lowe (Sightseers, Prevenge) and Liam Cunningham (Game of Thrones, Dog Soldiers).
What made you start your film festival?
Our festival directors, Simeon Halligan and Rachel Richardson-Jones, had just completed their first feature film, Splintered, and were looking to put together a launch event. My own background is in events management, including local film festivals, which is how the three of us know one another. Together we came up with the idea of doing some kind of one-off event, either over a single day or over a weekend, which would provide a showcase for a selection of independently-produced horror features and possibly a few shorts. We knew a number of people who had just produced suitable films, so thought this would be a straightforward event to pull together, but the more we talked about it, the more ambitious the project became.
Then one night, Sim and I found ourselves speaking at a media event in Manchester and, after one drink too many, we announced that we were setting up a horror and genre film festival. Not a one-off screening, but a festival. And that was that. People started contacting us – producers, distributors, filmmakers, horror writers… in the end, that initial “showcase” for Splintered ended up being a five-day event, screening over twenty features and a whole bunch of shorts. The audience loved it and, in spite of all the stress that first year, everybody involved behind the scenes caught the “festival bug”. And so it has continued, building on that initial success from year to year.
What are you most looking forward to in your next edition?
At the moment, we’re still working on this year’s festival line-up, so I can’t really say what I’m looking forward to in terms of films we might screen, or guests we might have. As ever, of course, I’m looking forward to the event itself, to hanging out with the Grimmfest team, catching up with festival regulars, socialising with guests and seeing how the various films play in front of an audience. It’s always great to see the successful fruition of all the work we put into making the festival happen every year.
One thing I am excited about this year is that this is our tenth anniversary, which is a bit of a milestone. And one of the ways in which we will be celebrating is with the introduction of the Grimmfest Awards – a new scheme to celebrate the very best titles selected for the festival and the creative teams behind them. We’ve assembled a fantastic jury for 2018, including a selection of some of the brightest lights in genre cinema right now: Joanne Mitchell (Writer, Actress, Producer), Caroline Couret-Delegue (Film sales), Lauren Ashley Carter (Actress, Writer), Andrea Subissati (Executive Editor at Rue Morgue), Annick Mahnert (Acquisitions Consultant, Festival Programmer, Producer) and Anya Stanley (Columnist at Dread Central).
What have you learnt the most from being involved with a film festival?
Grimmfest wasn’t my first festival; I’ve been working on film festivals now for over fifteen years, either as a festival manager or as a programmer – and it’s not always as much fun as it might seem. It can be exhausting, all-consuming. Simeon and Rachel tell me it’s at least as much work being directors of a festival as it is directing and producing a feature film and I don’t doubt this for a minute. There are so many variables to consider at all times, so much that needs keeping on top of.
Plus, film festivals are not a way to get rich. If you are going into this line of work to make money, then you should probably reconsider your options immediately. If you are going into this because you care passionately about the film, in all its forms, because you want to promote and provide a platform for new voices in film, then you probably have the right mindset. Festivals are a wonderful place to network, make contacts, discover new talents, make unexpected new friends. It’s also a good way to learn how the film industry actually works – a glimpse behind the screen, if you like; dealing with distributors and sales agencies, visiting film festivals and markets, seeing the mechanisms in operation.
It’s also oddly addictive. I keep telling myself that I am getting too old for this kind of work, but every time I try to get out, to do something else, I get pulled back. So many of the people who have worked with us on Grimmfest have gone on to work in other festivals because they’ve realised that this is what they want to do with their lives.
How does your selection process work?
Films come to us one of two ways – they’re either submitted via our Film Freeway platform, or they’re films we’ve requested screeners of, be it from distributors, sales agencies or filmmakers themselves. In either case, the selection process is the same: we have a viewing panel, which varies in the line-up from year to year but has had several mainstays dating right back to the earliest years.
Basically, the films come in and we work our way through, watching as many as each of us is able. As “senior programmer” I try to watch everything if I can. With the shorts, we all draw up shortlists and the films with the best reception are the ones that get through to the final selection. Over the years, we’ve come to trust one another’s judgements and to know one another’s tastes – and those of our regular audience – well enough for this approach to be quite effective. This means not every film has to be watched by all of us, but it needs to get a thumbs up from at least three of us before we’ll seriously consider it. Then, those who haven’t seen it yet will generally take a look too, just to be certain. If a film is in any way contentious, controversial, or has otherwise divided the members of the viewing panel, everybody takes a look – including those members of the team who do not generally involve themselves in the selection process.
Beyond that, we always keep an eye on what films are playing elsewhere and the receptions they are receiving. Every year there will be certain movies that our audience will want to see and we’ll try to make that happen if we can. We’ll be looking out for films that might attract potential guests too, of course, and for which older films are scheduled for a 4K reissue or Blu-ray release that we might like to present as a “genre classic”.
What’s your protocol for sending out rejections?
This is never a pleasant job, but unfortunately not every film can make it into the final selection. We will notify filmmakers via email if their film isn’t selected for the festival. There are many reasons why a film may not make it into the programme and, due to the number of submissions we receive, it’s not always possible to provide individual feedback on every film. Despite that, we’re happy for filmmakers to contact us after the notification date if they’d like further feedback.
Length of a short film – discuss…
I started out as a short film programmer and continue to work on more than one short film festival. Shorts are a particular passion of mine, so I’ve given this issue a lot of thought over the years. The brutal truth is that shorter films will have a greater chance of festival success around the world, because a big part of the selection process is a simple matter of scheduling. A festival programme is broken up into time slots and, the shorter a short film is, the easier it can be fitted into those slots – as support to a feature, say. And in putting together a 90-odd minute shorts programme, the aim is always to include as much variety and as many films as possible. So, from that perspective, the shorter they are, the better. Every year, there will be short films I love that don’t make the final selection simply because they’re too long and we can’t fit them in anywhere. As a general guideline, 20 minutes or less is preferable; I usually tell people that the ideal length of a short film is somewhere between 8 and 12 minutes. My advice to filmmakers working on short films is: hone it down, keep it as short and tight as possible. That being said, there is no hard and fast rule. We have shown short films up to 30 minutes in length at Grimmfest, with exceptions being made for their outstanding quality. In the end, a short film is as long as it needs to be.
Describe your festival in five words or three emojis
“All the Colours of Darkness”.
We’re interested in exploring the darker side of cinema, in all its various forms. Sure, our focus has always been horror and, to a lesser extent, science fiction, but we’ve also found slots over the years for Southern Gothic, Crime and Film Noir, Fantasy and lots of black comedy, as well as cinema that is simply weird, wired and defies categorisation. We like to stretch and redefine the boundaries of what constitutes genre cinema and hopefully, we’ll continue to do that.
What’s a personal favourite film festival of yours?
Clermont-Ferrand Short Film Festival, which was the first major film festival I ever went to. It’s a huge event, that takes over the entire city for about a fortnight, and screens ridiculous numbers of short films to huge audiences, all obsessed with the art of the short. As someone who started as a shorts programmer, and who still has a great fondness for the form, this was a hell of a way to start out. Also, Cinema Under the Stars in Bologna, which I had only a few days at several years ago. Bologna is one of the world centres for film restoration and the festival runs for at least a month, holding entirely free open-air screenings, from 35mm, in the main town square, with all manner of guests in attendance. So we got to see Pupi Avati’s House with Laughing Windows, which was shot in and around the region, introduced by the man himself.
What do you wish more filmmakers did, and didn’t do?
As a programmer, I’m always looking to be surprised: to see something I haven’t seen done before, or to see something done in a new or interesting way. I want to be challenged, confronted. I’d rather be irritated, even, than feel nothing at all for a film. Horror fans are one of the most cine-literate audiences; they know all the tricks of filmmaking, how they are used, the effects they create, and indeed how to use those tricks to misdirect and subvert, so they can often be the most critical of viewers. Sure, there’s often a mischievous, absurdist love of the trashy, cheesy and downright ridiculous in genre film, but this too comes from a position of knowingness and understanding.
So what I do tend to find frustrating is when filmmakers and producers don’t realise this. When they cynically attempt to replicate what’s already out there, without finding anything new to do with it. I see so many films that blend into one another. That retread the same old set-ups and narrative tropes. That do the same things, over and over. Perfectly serviceable, perfectly functional, but nothing more than nuts-and-bolts filmmaking, with nothing of note to say.
What I wish more filmmakers would do, is ask themselves why they are making the kind of film they are, question the approach they are taking to every scene and every shot. Don’t just look at genre as a quick, cheap, easy way to make money. That insults the fans, and it insults those filmmakers who are trying to do something new.
What questions do you get asked the most by filmmakers?
“How do I get my film into festivals / your festival?”
And I don’t really have any concrete answer, other than this, which sounds a bit facetious: “Make good films. Keep your short films short, and your features under 105 minutes. Make sure you look at the kinds of films that a festival screens, read their guidelines, do not submit films at random – do your research. And, always ask yourself: “is this particular festival actually worth having my film screened at anyway?”
What’s your favourite film?
I don’t really do favourites. There are films I can always go back to, individual directors I love unconditionally, but whose work I have to be in the mood for, films that have particular emotional resonances for me, based on a whole bunch of associations that have less to do with the film itself than the circumstances in which I saw it, or the person I saw it with. And, of course, even after 52 years of existence, 40 of which I’ve spent being obsessed by cinema, there are still so many films I’ve yet to see. The thought of picking a favourite, even among the ones I have seen thus far, defeats me – particularly as it would change every day, depending on my mood or the weather outside or whatever. And the thought that there’s something out there, still to be seen, that I might prefer to everything else, haunts me. So, I guess the honest answer to your question is… A Film I Haven’t Seen Yet!
And drink of choice whilst the festival is underway…?
In the general run of things, I tend to favour a good ale. During the week of the festival, however, I always carry a hipflask full of cheap bourbon, for… “emergencies”. I consider this to be a festival essential – indeed, the first year we did Grimmfest, as a gesture of thanks to all the festival volunteers, I bought them each a little keyring hipflask filled with bourbon, which seemed to me an appropriate gesture of welcome to the world of film festivals.
Grimmfest submission is open until 7th of July and the festival dates are 4th-7th of October. Happy submitting!