Sunday sit-down with… Kirsty Bell, Goldfinch Holdings
We caught up with one of the few female CEOs of an independent film production studio to chat life on set, Hollywood film festivals, supporting aspiring filmmakers and bringing international projects to the North East.
Growing up in Gosforth, Newcastle, Kirsty Bell perhaps seemed like a long way from the bright lights and silver screens of Hollywood.
And despite childhood dreams of pursuing a career in the arts, taking the more conservative route of accountancy and law in higher education may not seem the most obvious way of getting there, either.
But such is her creativity, passion and determination that, these days, if we don’t find Kirsty her in the top office of film and TV finance, production and investment business Goldfinch Holdings, we’ll find her behind the lens directing feature films, on set with the likes of Jessica Alba and Gary Oldman, or accepting awards at prestigious Hollywood film festivals.
That is, of course, if we don’t discover her painting or managing her art gallery, The Aviary, in Jesmond. Because if there’s one thing Kirsty isn’t, it’s content to sit back.
We caught up with Kirsty to find out what life is really like as one of the very few female CEOs of an independent film production studio, how she’s supporting other aspiring filmmakers and why she’s bringing some international projects up to the North East…
What made you first want to start Goldfinch?
I had produced my first film in 2010/11 and this was literally a baptism of fire! At the same time, the Sunday papers were regularly panning film investment by celebrities for various reasons. As a direct result of my experience in producing, I decided that if I didn’t try and prove that you could finance independent film and potentially get your money back, then I would never do it – and it’s so important to keep the sector alive that there is a healthy interest in financing. I also knew I would have to go to London to do it. So, in the summer of 2013, we moved down south. In January 2014, we launched the original version of Goldfinch – we are very different now, but that’s where it all started.
You’re a qualified lawyer and accountant. How does that marry with your passion for independent film?
I don’t know whether it does! My passion for independent film is born from watching and loving it over the years. Then, having made independent films myself, it’s about marrying the business side of the filmmaking with the creative – that’s the secret, I feel, to making successful independent films. It’s show business, at the end of the day. Independent filmmaking is so difficult, and increasingly so since the pandemic. At Goldfinch, we’ll always support filmmakers who want to make a difference.
You’re also a producer, artist, director and CEO. How do you fit it all in?!
You’re assuming I do! Goldfinch is my passion. It’s a family business in all senses of the word. If I’m honest, being a CEO is something that I still find daunting – you’re always learning and growing. Listening and learning are the biggest aspects of the job. Producing and directing are extensions of this role. Artist? Blame the lockdowns for that!
You draw and paint under the name ‘Birdhouse’ and have opened art gallery The Aviary here in Newcastle. Where did your love for art begin?
At a very young age, my passion was art. It was my go-to for my overactive imagination to output. I used to draw for hours and hours, just for the activity. Simply my favourite subject at school, and the one I really wanted to take at university, was Fine Art. However, universities are expensive places and it was decided a degree with an end goal of a job might be better.
I didn’t draw from the age of 18 again until lockdown – I was scared to after so much time had passed. We already had the art gallery in Jesmond and I had no aspiration to sell art there, as I hadn’t produced any! When I started to draw again in the first lockdown, it was with trepidation. I had a really bad hand and thumb break a few years ago too, so I didn’t even know if I could anymore. I started to draw birds – probably because of Goldfinch – and then in July 2021 we put them in the gallery. Rather wonderfully, they flew out! Life has a strange way of turning out.
Goldfinch has helped more than 12 first-time directors with their first films. Why is finding and supporting new talent in the industry so important to you?
I have to be honest, when Goldfinch started we were navigating as we went! Helping talent is our go-to – the fact it’s their first time or their 20th time is not the key factor. It’s simply the quality of the project, the financials and the individuals involved.
As the years have gone on, helping new talent break into the industry has become more important. The industry is so difficult to break into (as I know only too well!), and if we can help with breaking people into it, then we will. We’re very proud of the projects and the people we’ve helped in any way and will continue to do so.
You’ve recently launched your First Flights Features program, as well as your Short Film Fund. What do you look for in a film or director before investing in their project?
This is the million dollar question. It’s akin to the X Factor for film! It’s the creative, the presentation and then the financials have to back it all up. The Short Film Funds have been so wonderful and successful, and I’m so excited about our recent one for female identifying filmmakers.
And what was the process of directing your first film like?
I had no expectations other than to do my level best and work with the production team. I found the process quite liberating and my producer, Ben Charles Edwards – himself a director – made the process really enjoyable, which was not what I thought would be the case!
You’re one of very few women heading up an independent film production studio. What skills, qualities or opportunities would you attribute to your own success?
Having an entrepreneurial spirit, tenacity, a bit of business acumen, a vision that continues to grow, a supportive team with a willingness to work hard and, mostly, my son, Phil McKenzie – who is our Chief Operating Officer.
You made your own directorial debut in 2020 with A Bird Flew In – which was also the first UK film to start shooting since the pandemic began and, we hear, was inspired by the individual situations we all found ourselves in during lockdown. What made that the perfect time for you to enter into the world of directing?
That’s a really good question. Lockdown basically unlocked my time to explore more creative things myself. The concept for the film was originally doodles and caricatures I jotted down and they then evolved. I honestly believe that if the pandemic hadn’t happened, I would’nt have had this opportunity.
And what advice would you give to other women in the North East wanting to pursue a career in the world of filmmaking?
I was in my 40s when I bit the bullet to go to London and start what has become Goldfinch, and in my 50s when I picked up my first director credit. So, I suppose my advice for anyone is to TRY IT! You just never know. I certainly didn’t think over eight years after setting up Goldfinch it would have done what we have, so grasp the nettle!
When you’re up in the North East, where are we most likely to find you?
I now live between Newcastle and London. Whenever I’m in the Toon, you can find me in the gallery with the Nucasa team on Brentwood Avenue, on one of our amazing beaches with my dog, in the Ahad Tandoori in Gosforth, or finding one of the new little gems to enjoy a drink or bite to eat in, like Hibou Blanc in town.
And what’s next for you?
We have some great irons in the fire and many North East-based projects that are currently under wraps – so watch this space…