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Ben Hancock of Rebel Film Festival

Festival / Interview / by Festival Formula

Rebel Film Festival (formerly known as Plymouth Film Festival) is in its fifth year. We had a lovely chat with the festival director, Ben Hancock, who offered insight into an exciting film extravaganza weekender.

  • Tell us about your festival

We’re really excited to be essentially relaunching the festival this year under the new Rebel Film Festival branding; for the time being it won’t mean many changes to the tried and tested format we have for the event, but we have some big plans ahead. We’re coming up on our fifth year in Plymouth, and it will be our first year in Bristol and Edinburgh. We keep our events short (2 days), packed with amazing films, and centralised in a single location with a bar (and in Edinburgh’s case, a micro-brewery and gin distillery too). Under the Rebel brand, we hope to be able to do more to help filmmakers with distribution and production too, which has always been beyond our means previously. We’ve also just launched our Rebel Membership to provide filmmakers with discounts on a number of film-related services (including Festival Formula!), tickets, submissions & low-cost DCP Conversion, we know how expensive producing films is and our mission is to support talented indie filmmakers any way we can.

For us, a good festival should have an atmosphere and bring people together for a real celebration of film, so our focus has always been on getting filmmakers to the event and (hopefully) making sure they have a good time when they are there. We find alcohol is pretty good as a social catalyst and our partnerships with local breweries allow us to make that pretty accessible – we do our best to get free beer for the screening filmmakers and at the very least a hefty discount. The hospitality doesn’t stop there either, as we provide awesome locally produced food throughout the weekend, which helps keep everyone socialising in the same place which in turn starts bonds forming between the attendees. There is always a festival director on hand too. We love the event, and the people that come, and we want to personally make them all feel welcome, so you’ll never have any issue finding us.

It’s a fairly messy weekend as you can imagine, but we have no pretence. We’re not a glitzy event with a bunch of star names, we just love films, beer, and hanging out with like-minded people. As we grow it will just become harder to get tickets, we’ll never expand an event to the point where the atmosphere is lost by holding it at several locations scattered across a city.

  • What made you start your film festival?

I guess the simple answer is that from a selfish perspective we wanted a festival to attend in Plymouth. Living in the South West, we had to travel for hours to get to other events, and when we were there we were often disappointed that what we were attending were essentially screenings, like going to the cinema on a Friday night. Sure they weren’t films that you could catch down your local Vue, but it didn’t live up to the festival moniker. We were surprised at first that a city with several higher education institutions with film courses, along with a population of around 250,000 people, just didn’t have a film festival. So we decided to start one, and we approached it from a single central question: “what would we want as attending filmmakers?”.

  • What are you most looking forward to in your next edition?

We’ve got some really exceptional films lined up as ever, but we can’t go into too many specifics just yet as the programme is still being finalised. For me though, the thing I look forward to most is meeting the filmmakers. We’ve watched their films so many times by the time we meet them that there’s always a load of stuff to talk about.

  • What have you learnt the most from being involved with a film festival?

That it’s much harder work than you would imagine. We’ve always been doers rather than planners, and that means we don’t always see potential stumbling blocks going into a project, and the festival had plenty. I actually think that if we had known how much time it would take up we may never have started it in the first place, but it always seems worth it when you get to meet the crews behind the films. We’ve also learnt a lot about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to short films too, it’s kind of hard not to when you watch as many as we do!

  • How does your selection process work?

Up to this point we (the festival directors) have watched every single submission, which is a lot of films, and no longer a sustainable model as we begin hosting additional events. So we are looking to bring in some trusted screeners in the form of festival alumni. We feel alumni are the best option to keep the vision and feel of the festival as we have only ever screened films we love, so it stands to reason that they would have similar tastes.

Currently, though the selections are made by watching every film in full to give it an initial score, then making a long list from the top 150ish and rewatching them (sometimes a dozen or so times when the choices are particularly close). Through discussion (and some arguing), we gradually narrow it down then to around 50 that will be selections from which we will form the programme; selections come first, then we group them into screening blocks, this way there are no considerations beyond which film is best at the time of selection. We then take these to a special jury screening to decide the award winners through a vote, in which we don’t participate ourselves.

  • What’s your protocol for sending out rejections?

This is our least favourite part of running the fest, naturally no normal person wants to disappoint hundreds of people in a 24 hour period. It’s also a point where I have to hold up my hand and say we have made some mistakes in not having a better system in place. We always contact all the direct submissions individually, however, we rely on the submission platforms themselves for submissions which came through them, and this in the past has lead to emails not going out for whatever reason, which is frustrating for the filmmakers, and somewhat upsetting for us as we pride ourselves on being honest and forthright as an organisation.

  • Length of a short film – discuss…

Runtime is always a debate, but that’s because there really isn’t a perfect numeric answer. What I would say is as long as necessary, but as short as possible. From a programmers point of view the shorter the film is, the easier it is to fit into the limited amount of screen time that is inevitably available, so when it is a toss up between screening 2 five minute films vs 1 ten minute film of similar standard then you are going to choose the five minute ones every time. In reality though, those choices are never so clear cut in a world as subjective as film, but as a general rule I would say that a good 3 minute film will screen at a lot more festivals than a slightly better 15 minute film, so the longer your runtime, the better you need to make your film. Be exceptional, or be ruthless in the edit.

  • Describe your festival in five words or three emojis

friendly, boozy, candid, genuinely independent

  • What’s a personal favourite film festival of yours?

We really love the smaller, intimate film fests, naturally that predilection is reflected in our events, but we don’t get to travel to nearly as many as we would like. We’ve been to Encounters and Raindance, among other large fests, and always found ourselves kind of isolated. What we love is the camaraderie of like-minded people coming together, oh and the drinking, we like the drinking too. We want festivals to be festivals, celebrations of film that bring people together. In that vein I guess one of the fests which I like and try to get to every year as it’s pretty local is Two Short Nights in Exeter, it’s a lovely, friendly crowd… and there is a cosy bar of course.

  • What do you wish more filmmakers did and didn’t do?

I’m sure I could write a book on this, but If I was to give just one tip of something that is really simple but makes a real difference to the chances of a films festival success (and surprisingly few people take advantage of the opportunity), it would be to write a cover letter. It helps to bridge the information asymmetry between the filmmakers and the festival selection committee (maybe some of your cast or crew are local, or you feel your film fits for a specific but not obvious reason), shows that you have done your homework, and opens a dialogue with the festival; on a similar note we also love it when filmmakers stay in touch after the event. The filmmaker/festival relationship is symbiotic, and any event that tells you they don’t give a preference to filmmakers that are really keen to get involved is just straight up lying, after all, it’s the filmmakers that make or break the event.

The don’t do probably follows on slightly from that point too as we are continually surprised by the number of filmmakers that seem to submit without even seeing if their film is eligible. As much as we love the submission platforms, they have made it fairly easy to spam submit, and that can be a costly mistake for filmmakers.

  • What questions do you get asked the most by filmmakers?

Can I have a waiver? Actually, I think it’s probably about Roger Deakins’ involvement. This is probably a more festival specific answer than useful information, but we reached out to him and were surprised by the positive response. Since then, the special award has become a staple, and naturally most coveted at the festival. He has a love for film that you would expect from a cinematographer with such an exceptional body of work, and it means a lot to us and the filmmakers that he takes the time to be involved with the judging.

  • What’s your favourite film?

Die Hard. I generally get some questioning looks with this answer, but if there is a better action movie I’m yet to see it, and it reminds me of Christmas too, and I love Christmas.

  • And drink of choice whilst the festival is underway…?

Definitely beer! We always make extra effort to keep the bar well stocked at our events, and partner with local breweries that we really love to supply some really great craft beers (including our own specially brewed one – Half Cut Reel Ale).

Rebel Film Festival will take place 2nd-3rd of June at Plymouth Art Centre. Passes are available here

Ben Hancock (left) Anna Navas (centre) William Jenkins (right)



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