Film, OldVenue

The Art of Student Cinema: Paul Allen Interview

Many will tell you that it’s a great challenge to make a feature film. You need the finances, the equipment and, more often than not, good ideas. Rest assured, it’s even harder first time around. For Paul Allen, a masters graduate at the International Film School Wales (where he was tutored by the late great Ken Russell) and now director at 33Story Productions, it took a year and four months to finalise his first feature: Big Font. Large Spacing. What he developed, however, was more than a film, but an inventive form of exhibition that you’d think belongs in the music business. Furthermore, it was all based on an affection for 2D projection, and concerning a type of cinema often overlooked by the wider industry: the “student cinema.”  

Big Font

Big Font was as much for students as its story is about them (the film follows two students who have to write a 5,000 word essay one night from a deadline – a common problem for many at UEA, Venue believes). Having premiered at the Atlanta Film Festival in April 2010, Allen and his team then “toured” their film across 23 different universities. They did so after designing and building a 10-foot outdoor cinema that could fold up into the back of a campervan, the very screen that the film would be shown on night after night. Culminating in 2012, the tour was seen by 3,000 students. Now coming to UEA, Venue sat down with Allen to discuss deadlines, business, and why it all took so long to arrive in the east …

Venue: Now we’re in 2013, people will be asking, “Why has it taken this long for your project to reach UEA?” So, let’s start by asking exactly that …

Paul Allen: The honest answer is geography. In my 1983 VW camper van, we had to plan a route that minimised the miles as much as possible, whilst visiting the maximum number of universities. Starting in Cardiff, Norwich felt a little ambitious. There was a reasonable chance if we went that far we might never make it back (the camper did in fact break down on us, so it was a justified concern!) Only now we’ve got the film on DVD is it possible to arrange screenings where we don’t have to bring our cinema kit. Sorry – we would have loved to have screened before.

V: How and where did the idea for the film originate? Were you a student at the time? Can you explain your role in the making of the film?

PA: The idea for the film came from two places. Firstly, I live in Cardiff and work at the university so am constantly surrounded by students. Secondly, we wanted to make a film on a limited budget so needed a story and setting which would work with limited locations. As we developed the script we realised that no one else had really made a feature film about a British university before so it felt like a golden opportunity to do something new. I come from a psychology background, and working as a psychology researcher, it was exciting to try something different from the normal frat-back American movies and to weave in some psychological ideas about the politics of shared houses, scapegoating etc. I wasn’t a student when we made the film, but was fairly fresh off the back of a masters in film, as were a number of the crew. We were all determined to make our first feature, so that made it pretty exciting.

V: How difficult was it to finance and then distribute the film, given that it was independently made? Did it give you an insight into the state of independent filmmaking?

PA: Financing the film was one area where we were pretty fortunate. The producer and co-producer were part of a training scheme with a local TV production company, and as part of that they showed good will by backing the film. That’s unusual though, and it’s normally a big challenge. If the film had been any bigger we almost certainly wouldn’t have been able to attract investment, especially being first timers with a non-star cast. Going through the whole process certainly gave us an insight into the state of the independent film world, with the biggest wake-up call coming when we started learning about distribution.

V: As part of the tour you used a pop-up screen to showcase the film. What was the use of this particular technology? Was it an artistic choice or something you felt could be utilised as a unique selling point?

PA: We started it in response to learning more and more about the state of distribution, and in particular the challenge faced by low budget and/or first time filmmakers. There’s no incentive for a distributor to put lots of money behind a film with no stars, and therefore most films similar to ours in size end up disappearing without a trace. To make matters worse, the filmmakers lose the rights to their film, and end up making next to no money. Relative to this fairly depressing landscape we thought it would be foolish not to try something different. The main advantage was that we had a very specific target audience in students, and locations where we could screen to them i.e. universities. It was also a good time in that HD was really starting to come online – both in terms of cameras and projectors. We shot in HD and saw the opportunity to screen in HD, which was really exciting. We’ve now screened to nearly 3,000 people, which dwarfs what we would have achieved in a short cinema run. And we can still keep screening as long as we like which is something you could never normally do.

V: When we first received information about the film, it was in an e-mail entitled “the revenge of 2D cinema.” Does this mean that, in some way, the whole project was a reaction to the emergence of “eye-popping” 3D?

PA: In a way 2D Cinema (the secondary name of their project) was a reaction to 3D, in that 3D represented a push from the industry to try and sell more tickets, and particularly get people in to see big blockbusters like Avatar. 3D was therefore just launching when we had the idea of starting a pop-up cinema. We liked the idea that the small, independent filmmakers were fighting back with good old-fashioned 2D, taking cinema to new locations in exciting ways. We also undeniably called our project 2D Cinema as a marketing ploy to try and attract some attention to what we were doing! We needed all the exposure we could get.

V: It’s fair to say that the distribution of this film was much unlike the regular process; it was not about getting the film to have a fixed run in cinemas, but about exploring alternative methods of exhibition. The word “tour”, in particular, is not something you would usually associate with a film, though it affords it a sense of portability, and creates this idea that a showing of the film is an event. Can you explain the reasoning behind touring the film? Do you believe this method has sustainability in the industry?

PA: 2D Cinema and the idea of touring was very much a process of evolution. We built the cinema as a means of showing our film, and then realised that we would maximise our screenings if we tied them together in a run. From a practical point of view it saves going home every time in between screenings and having to load / unload the kit each time. Once we decided on a tour we decided it would make most sense to target fresher’s weeks in line with our target audience. We also had in mind the music industry model where an album is produced and then a band hits the road to actively promote it. We were experimenting with whether a similar approach could be taken with independent film.

V: How successful did you find the original theatrical run/tour? Was it what you expected it to be? What did you learn from the experience?

PA: It would be easy to say the touring was a complete success, but the reality is that it was a rollercoaster ride and was sometimes pretty hard going. We had some incredible screenings with 200+ people and big rounds of applause at the end, and other occasions where we’d travel 150 miles to discover the university had done no promotion, or not booked the venue. When you’re putting yourself out there, doing something new, the lack of enthusiasm from some people can be soul destroying, but equally there were some universities where they completely understand what we were doing and really supported us. Some of the outdoor screenings in particular were really special. The satisfying thing is looking back at how many screenings we managed to do, and the number of people we screened to overall. It justified our decision to do something different.

V: When watching the film itself, some clear influences shine through. Most pertinent, in my opinion, was Edgar Wright’s Spaced. From a creative viewpoint, what or who had influence over the direction and the writing of the film?

PA: Spaced was certainly an influence, especially in terms of directing, and I’m a big fan of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. I like the fact that Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg celebrate Britishness, which is something we were keen to do in Big Font. Large Spacing. Another big influence is the writer/director Billy Wilder whose most famous film is probably The Apartment. I like a script-orientated film, that’s what interests me.

V: You’ve created a film that, for the majority of students, will be hugely relatable. For this reason, making a piece about students is, one can imagine, quite a logical decision, because university is such a breeding ground for empathy. Everyone knows what its like to have deadlines, or have severe hangovers; it’s a life that’s open to a vast array of stereotypes that can be exploited for comedic or dramatic value. But with the emergence of shows such as Fresh Meat, is there still room in the market for student-centric narrative?

PA: I think so – we were certainly shocked about how little this time of life had been explored in film and TV when we did our research. There are plenty of TV dramas and comedies about school, so there’s no reason that Fresh Meat should preclude other things being written about this time.

V: Have you ever been in a position where you have had to write an entire essay in one night? Is the film, in fact … biographical?

PA: I wasn’t a slacker by any means (I lean much more towards geek), but I did largely complete my essays the night before they were due in. When you’re up against it your mind really focuses. Finishing in the early hours of the morning was therefore familiar territory for me, although I never strictly pulled an all-nighter right through to the morning. I was very close though.

V: How would you advise undergraduate students that want to get involved in the production of films, or perhaps want to start their own production company?

PA: I believe the only way is to start making things yourself – going through the whole process from writing right through to editing. Each stage informs the next – so, for example, if you learn to edit it helps you learn which shots cut together when directing. I would recommend starting with short films, and then building up to something longer. Critically, for each piece you produce, get brutally honest feedback from a varied group of people. Staying open to criticism is the only way to improve.

V: What does the future hold for 33Story Productions? Are there any more feature films set to “tour” in the coming years?

PA: I am currently in the process of writing a new film which we’ll be developing this year. After making and touring Big Font. Large Spacing we feel ready for a bigger project, so the new film is more ambitious in most ways. Only by making Big Font. Large Spacing are we ready to take on a bigger challenge, and hopefully the new film will benefit from everything we’ve learnt. 2D Cinema will continue to exist and we help run screenings of various films in Cardiff as part of a spin-off from the local art house cinema (Chapter Arts), called “Darkened Rooms”. The idea is that classic films are shown in alternative venues, tied in with the theme of the film. We’ve shown The Shining in a hotel, for example, and Alien at Techniquest, a hands-on science centre in Cardiff Bay. We’ve got a cinema, and we’re not afraid to use it.

08/04/2013

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