Cinemas that Made Me: Ian Francis from Flatpack Festival

30 Sep 2020 in Cinemas That Made Me

6 mins
Flatpack screening at Dudley Castle
Flatpack screening at Dudley Castle

Many cinemas have re-opened, but it's still a tough time for the industry with new protocols, smaller audiences and ever-changing release dates all ongoing consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak. Next week, the BFI London Film Festival begins their first hybrid edition, combining in-cinema and virtual screenings. Here, we continue our celebration of UK exhibitors by hearing from Ian Francis - Director of Birmingham's Flatpack Festivalwho also took to the online arena earlier this year.

Flatpack have been putting on an eclectic array of film events since 2006, including their acclaimed annual festival which takes place every May Bank Holiday in Birmingham. They programme all kinds of work, with a particular focus on the playful and the experimental, and have been known to pop up everywhere from swimming pools and churches to narrowboats and warehouses (as well as the occasional cinema). Alongside the festival their year-round work includes family film tours, archive explorations and training and development for young people who want to put on screenings.

We spoke to Director Ian Francis, who filled us in on his hands-on, DIY route into exhibiting films, as well as how Flatpack have adjusted their work in light of the pandemic.

What was your first job in the cinema industry and how did you get where you are today?

After graduation I volunteered at the Birmingham Film and TV Festival, and hung around long enough to eventually get paid. During my time there I became particularly interested in short film events and using portable kit to put on screenings in non-cinema spaces, and when I left I took the projector and screen with me and set up a regular night in a Digbeth pub called 7 Inch Cinema. This was a labour of love but with time, it led to freelance work and helped to spawn the first Flatpack Festival.

Are there any cinemas that had an important impact on you earlier in life?

I grew up in the countryside in Shropshire and film was a bit of a lifeline for me. A lot of movies I discovered through late night TV and the video shop, but my nearest cinema was the Majestic in Bridgnorth.

I remember the queues down the street for Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, and being traumatised by E.T. The Extra-Terrestrialpartly because of all the baddies in protective suits and also because my friend was sick on me after she ate too many butterscotch sweets. The Majestic is one of those cosy, old-fashioned high street cinemas, and I'm happy to say it's still going strong.

Are there any ways that venue has affected how you work today?

Although we put on a lot of non-theatrical events, the cinema experience is still really important to Flatpack. Above all, we want to create a sense of occasion - something memorable that people couldn't get from just sitting at home. In many ways this goes right back to the thrill of being a kid in a packed house when the lights go down and the curtains go up.

With in-person festival screenings not possible during the COVID-19 lockdown, did you begin any new initiatives?

We were just about to send the brochure for our fourteenth festival to print, when it became clear that no one was going to be organising any events for a while.

Things shifted very quickly, but once we'd got everyone set up to work from home we began to repurpose the programme for a Home Entertainment Edition. The focus was on our brilliant, BAFTA-qualifying short film competition, and it was a great learning experience which connected us with all kinds of new audiences around the world. It was also good to have something positive to work on at a scary, uncertain time, and it weirdly brought us closer together with our filmmaking community even though they couldn't visit Birmingham this year. I miss the buzz of 'proper' events but like many others, we'll be looking at a mix of physical and online programming for some time.

In this rapidly changing world, how do you think cinema can continue to bring people together, and what will Flatpack's role in this be?

Cinemas have obviously begun to reopen, but it's a really difficult time for them and it will take some people a while to feel confident in going back. However, I think this period of enforced domesticity has also shone a light on what we get from live events and big screen experiences, and they will be really important as we begin to rebuild.

From a Flatpack point of view, we've always prided ourselves on our versatility so I'm confident we can respond to this strange new world we find ourselves in. In recent years we've put on some great open-air screenings, including a regular horror weekender at Dudley Castle, and we'll be doing a lot more outdoor work in the future. People have also become more focussed on their immediate locality, and there's loads of exciting potential to develop neighbourhood pop-ups which can act as socially distanced community gatherings.

Flatpack's 15th festival takes place 28 April - 3 May 2021 and they are now accepting submissions for the 2021 programme. All types and genres of short films are welcome. Flatpack is a BAFTA-Qualifying Festival, meaning that successful submissions will not only earn a place in the programme but could also go on to win a BAFTA. For further details visit flatpackfestival.org.uk/submissions.

This Article is part of: Cinemas That Made Me

A series celebrating cinemas, venues and exhibitors across the UK.

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