Sunday sit-down with… Lisa-Marie Tonelli
We caught up with the Director of the North East’s first ever International Film Festival to find out why the region is now attracting filmmakers from all around the world – and forging partnerships with festivals in Paris, New York and LA in the process.
Last November, the North East’s first ever International Film Festival welcomed audiences and filmmakers, directors, production companies and educational providiers from all over the world to our region.
And the whole three-day movie-themed marathon was only brought together by Geordie Lisa-Marie Tonelli and a handful of professional volunteers, the event itself borne simply out of Lisa Marie’s out-and-out passion for the industry.
We caught up with her shortly after the event to find out how she made her dream of putting the North East on the global filmmaking map a reality…
Why did you want to set up the festival?
I had been working in independent film production for a few years with my own project on the festival circuit. The film was doing well, winning awards internationally and was eventually picked up on a three-year contract with Shorts TV in the US. But there were a couple of things that struck me when I was submitting to these festivals.
The first was that there was an opportunity, a gap in the market, to host a film-related event in my home region. The North East is host to a wealth of creative people and it has been the location for so many Hollywood blockbusters, yet it was probably one of the few major UK cities that didn’t have an annual international film festival.
The second was that the majority (but not all) of existing film festivals appeared to me to be a little too genre-specific. I found there to be a scarcity of all-inclusive festivals where you could not only submit a horror film but also an LGBTQ film, for example.
Why are film festivals so important to the industry?
Film festivals are integral to ensure the sustainability of future feature filmmaking globally. Most filmmakers begin this way, quite often with a short film (as a bigger budget is required to produce a feature). If a project does particularly well on the festival circuit, they’ll often be offered funding from investors to produce a feature – and often there is no other option to approach large distribution companies directly, so this can be really important. Essentially, a film festival will act as a marketing tool for a filmmaker, helping them raise awareness of their film. Most of the big-name directors we have all come to know and love have been ‘discovered’ in this way.
Film festivals also offer a fantastic opportunity to network with like-minded industry professionals and discuss the possibility of future collaborations. A film festival, if it champions the same ideals as the NEIFF does, will also expose independent cinema to new audiences. Festivals that choose to include workshops and masterclasses, as we did, have that added educational benefit and Q&As connect audiences with filmmakers. Any community with a successful film festival will inevitably contribute towards the region’s travel and tourism industries and, therefore, benefit the local economy.
How is NEIFF different from other film festivals out there?
NEIFF has decided to take all the positive aspects of existing film festivals to create an all-inclusive and collaborative model. The festival itself is comprised of many varying categories and is hosted in an impressive number of venues, chosen specifically for their accessibility.
We ensure a diverse panel of judges – hand-picked for being the best in the industry – with a wealth of experience in film distribution, theatrical sales and production for large, well-known organisations.
We’re the first festival to ever sign up to the BBC 50/50 Equality Project, taking personal accountability for our programme output. We’re the first festival ever to receive the Raising Films Ribbon for our efforts in creating not also a safe and inclusive space for our audience and filmmakers, but also for our own team. And we’re also the first film festival to offer a Top Screener Award trophy to the screener who views and rates the most hours of film. Screeners are also volunteers who commit an incredible amount of time and energy to the festival and we believed this should be recognised and awarded. I can only hope that this may encourage other festivals will follow suit!
You also have a big focus on women in filmmaking, and on championing North East talent, right?
Absolutely! The NEIFF is one of around 80 festivals worldwide to adopt the F-Rating which represents females in film. As an organisation, we’ve been nominated for many awards, including an Inclusive Companies Award, Blue Badge Award and the Makers & Shakers Award for Initiative To Grow Local Industry.
Very recently, I’ve personally been added to the Northern Power Women Future List for making a difference in my organisation and community, whilst accelerating and supporting gender equality.
The NEIFF programming schedule also showcased almost 50% North East made or North East based films. Our model is one that focuses not only on diversity, but also local collaborations and we were incredibly humbled that many of the regions’ businesses, charities, universities and organisations supported us in our inaugural year.
Tell us about some of the workshops you ran alongside the screenings at the festival.
We wanted to offer workshops that would not only engage current students or festival-goers, but also members of the public. The workshops and masterclasses were free to attend and open to absolutely everyone. These included workshops on collaboration, mental health, a writers’ workshop, acting masterclasses, getting your short film made, a comedy masterclass and virtual production using game engines. As well as these, we also offered student placements and training in cinema projection.
We’ll be hosting various workshops and masterclasses again this year, in collaboration with all of our University partners, in the week leading up to our next festival weekend. We’re also working in collaboration with Tyne & Wear Museums for the Hadrian’s Wall 1900 Festival to offer child-friendly outdoor screenings (free of charge) to under 16s, as well as complimentary access to the museums on those days.
How would you describe the filmmaking scene here in the North East?
This is an exciting time for the North East film industry, with new film studios, production companies, broadcasting hubs and blockbuster films all playing their part and shining a light on the region’s incredible talent and locations. Local government have been incredibly supportive of the creative sectors, but I’d like to see a new government policy initiative supporting the North East industry by offering a tax relief to encourage filmmakers and production companies to shoot if not all, then part of their project in our region.
Now you’ve officially launched, what are your plans for next year’s festival?
I would love for there to be even more collaborative activities next year and we’ve already expanded to forge new partnerships with cinemas such as the Star and Shadow Cinema, Tyneside Cinema and Everyman Cinema in Newcastle, Gala Cinema in Durham, Jam Jar Cinema in Whitley Bay and Showcase De Lux Cinema in Teesside.
Initially, when I set up this festival, it was with the intention of hosting screenings throughout the region, in particular for those who may have found Newcastle difficult to reach. Unfortunately, due to lack of first year funding, we were unable to screen around the wider region. Our plans for NEIFF 2022 is to reach a larger audience by including these screening locations in our program. We want to enhance audience experience and give them the opportunity to watch films they might not otherwise have access to.
Our goal is also to become the youngest BAFTA and BIFA qualifying film festival in the UK; our intention is to apply for 2022 qualifying status. The NEIFF ambition is to become the UK’s go-to film festival for independent premieres.
Some very exciting news we’ve had recently is that NEIFF has now officially partnered with other international film festivals in Paris, New York and LA for our second year. These festivals have all been running for more than 12 years and are rated in the top 100 reviewed film festivals. One of our US festival partners is also an Academy Award Qualifying festival.
What films are you most looking forward to seeing in 2022?
I am a huge ‘80s film fan, so I’m looking forward to the spring to see Top Gun: Maverick. And with regards to our 2022 festival films, I’d love to see even more international submissions.
With special thanks to Tyneside Cinema for allowing us to shoot in their beautiful cinema.