Ian Lawton spoke to Colm Forde about the origins of Doc’n’Roll Film Festival which he co-founded with Vanessa Lobon. They chatted about blagging your way into cinemas, championing the underdog, the pitfalls of indie filmmaking and explored the reasons why there’s has been an explosion of underground film docs in the last ten years. Doc’n’Roll’s 8th edition rolls out across UK cinemas from 28th Oct – 14th Nov – 1BTN’s selections from this year’s programme are here.
Can you tell me something about the genesis of Doc’n’Roll festival?
Myself and Vanessa – I’m from Dublin and Vanessa is from Barcelona – set the festival up in 2014. We both arrived in London in 2013 and we were both fans of music and alternative, indie cinema and we realised that no-one was really catering for music documentaries apart from the major releases of films about Bruce Springsteen, or A-list mainstream artists like The Rolling Stones, or The Beatles. Those obvious docs were going straight in to all the major outlets for a week’s run or two but all these left field films that we were aware of, just as film fans, we realised that no-one was catering for them beyond a single screening, a London premiere. That would be it. Then they were forced on to dvd because of a lack of awareness on the part of film programmers across the arthouse circuit – Picturehouse chain, Curzon and Everyman. These arthouse programmers know a lot about French, Italian and Polish film, but they know very little about … Elliot Smith (Heaven Adores You) for example, which was our first really big hit. Nobody knew who he was.
My background is film restoration, film archiving in Dublin. I took voluntary redundancy in 2013 and decided to decamp to London and, to cut a long story short, I didn’t find the kind of work I was looking for so we decided to throw our passions behind this crazy idea. It was September 2014 we started at Hackney Picturehouse with 12 films over 4 days. Because it was a novel idea we got some really good press out of that, compared to your average new film festival – to the point where we actually got better press the first year than we did the second because of the novelty of the idea! The cinema was delighted by that obviously and we were at about 65% capacity over our 12 screenings, which is very good for a first time festival.
Picturehouse saw the light from then on and the next year we started showing a few films in Brighton. We started in Brighton at Duke of York’s with the Elliot Smith film. That’s a classic example – nobody knew who he was on the film programming side of things so they weren’t answering the filmmaker’s emails at all because it wasn’t a recognisable name. Also, for film programmers, if there’s no marketing budget behind the film then they don’t see the point; and most of these films don’t have a marketing budget because they’re mostly crowdfunded films with grassroots social media behind them on the film’s pages, or the band’s. But Elliot Smith had passed away many years before so there wasn’t the natural social media impulse behind him, although the film itself had 12,000 likes and they still couldn’t get a screening in London. We ended up picking up that film about four months after we did our first festival in London.
What were some of the films from the first festival in Hackney, can you remember?
One of the press hooks that we had there was three screenings of Julien Temple films on the Saturday, a mini retrospective of his most recent work; Oil City Confidential about Dr Feelgood, that’s one of my favourite docs (5 Best Underground film docs), Strummer and London – The Modern Babylon which he’d made for the Olympics. He made a film about Detroit and Rio as well, a trio of major cities. We had him for three Q&As that day.
Then we had Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton, about Stones Throw records, a great film. We had the film A Band Called Death which was a UK premiere. That’s a really good example of a film not being picked up. That film had won the audience award at South by South West the year before and nobody screened it in the UK. We had a Skype Q&A with the band in Vermont. Then we had Her Aim is True, about a photographer called Jini Dellaccio who shot album covers for The Sonics and others, and Looking for Johnny, a film about Johnny Thunders …
I think that’s on Prime now …. Or am I thinking of the Stiv Bators one?
It’s the same filmmaker for both actually … then Every Everything – The Music, Life and Times of Grant Hart, from Hüsker Dü. Then we had a film about Doc Pomus (AKA Doc Pomus) who was a singer songwriter who wrote a lot of great songs that were made famous by other artists, including Elvis Presley and Ray Charles – a very interesting character. Another one was The Punk Syndrome about a Finnish band made up of adults with learning difficulties. That’s a lovely interesting film about a punk band (Pertti Kurikan) that play all this aggressive music to express their frustrations. There was also one about Joe Meek as well – A Life in the Death of Joe Meek
There is a feature film about Joe Meek as well (Telstar)
There is yes, I haven’t seen it.
So the Elliot Smith doc wasn’t part of the first round of films?
It wasn’t because the filmmakers wouldn’t give it to us because we had no form, no background. We were chasing it to be included but they were being really snobbish and risk averse, thinking who the hell are these guys? They were dismissive, but they couldn’t find anywhere to get a London premiere. They screened it at Leeds International Film Festival, that was the UK premiere, but that was the end of it until I got in touch with them again and said, I don’t see any London screenings for this, if you still interested in a London premiere we’re still keen. Then they answered because they were knocking on all the doors and no-one was answering.
So then we showed it in Hackney March 2015 and just as I’d predicted, they wanted to show it on the small screen, because that’s how they operate – risk averse management – but I said this is a medium screen film because it’s gonna sell extremely fast because I knew everyone would jump on it from the activity I could see online. Sure enough it sold out the first 50 tickets in an hour, so they had to bump it to the 120 seater and I told them that would sell out in a few hours, which it did, and by the next day it had sold out Screen 1 in Hackney Picture House, 180 seats.
So I ended up getting a screening in Duke of York’s, Brighton, the same weekend. That was the beginning of our whole story there and that’s when Picturehouse really started to pay attention because we sold out Duke of Yorks in ten days. That was the first big success we had. So since then, little by little we’ve been breaking out on the Picturehouse network, initially up to FACT in Liverpool and subsequently we’re in 14 regional cities on the tour.
So the spread was a natural development really?
It was. We started with Brighton, and then Liverpool, and then we added Hull to it, we followed the support …
Was that for City of Culture?
Yeah, City of Culture, we got invited up there because we were involved with Punk London – the GLA organised celebration of 2016 as the 40th anniversary of 1976. It was a big celebration of punk across all the galleries of London, the Roundhouse was involved and the 100 Club, and out of that we we were invited to Hull. Obviously Hull wasn’t the obvious next place to go but then we got involved with Manchester, Bristol, Sheffield, all the no brainer left field music subculture cities.
It’s nice that Brighton was an early adopter. There’s a massive audience for gigs and underground music here.
There’s a lot of London ex-pats there’s, a lot of music producers, DJs, you know yourself how that is. So that’s always worked well for us and people have come up from Brighton for the main festival. We’ve had people come from Manchester and Leicester travel to the London screenings, for a one off screening, so it shows the appetite that’s there. It was great to get in early in Brighton, it was a no brainer.
There really seems to be an explosion of these left field documentaries the last few years. What do you think are the reasons for that? No doubt a large part of it is the liberation of film making technology?
That’s a primary thing really as well as the financing. The democratisation of the means of production, if you want to be Marxist about it, editing in your bedroom for days and days, just like you can make an album on your laptop on the train. But that can only get you so far. I’d say actually it’s the triangle of social media, cheap camera and editing equipment and crowdfunding platforms that have made it happen. Those three together. Now, for better or for worse, music fans can now get a camera, raise 10 grand and that kickstarts the whole thing, and if they’re lucky someone will come in behind them and throws another 30 or 40 grand at it if it seems like a good idea. Otherwise they’ll just be left with the 10 grand and spend 7 or 8 years making it. 90% of the films we show are crowdfunded films through Indiegogo or Crowdfunder. The gestation period is on average 5-6 years from beginning to the end. Some films we show have been 10 years in the works. They’re all passion projects.
Yep, real labours of love these things …
That’s the thing, obviously we still have the major music docs out there, and they get massive support from the record labels, but these other films are brewing in the background for years, they’re on a different level, under the radar to say the least and under the radar of the film programmers who are not aware of their potential. It’s quite expensive to release a film – in London a lot of our expense is the press, to make people aware of what we’re doing. The film programmers know that’s a major part of the problem – if it doesn’t have five grand behind it to throw at marketing then they think there’s no point in showing it. Well, they might show it once but they won’t put it in 18 different cinemas across the UK.
Is marketing something that filmmakers often overlook when they’re doing their crowdfunding?
Massively. But that’s across the board, not just music docs. What we’ve come to realise is that half the job is making the film but the other half of the work is getting it shown and getting people there. It really is and that’s where people fall down. A few years ago we had a film at the Duke of York’s about The Orb, who have about 50,000 likes on Facebook, but the Canadian guy who brought the film to us, a big fan, only had 50 likes on social media for the film. He couldn’t afford anyone to do social media. The filmmakers are only bringing themselves so far sometimes.
You really have to be a jack of all trades these days, same in every industry. That’s a major oversight by a lot of filmmakers – they think it’s a distributors job to pay for the marketing but the distributors only give an advance on the marketing which is recouped, like a record label advance is from the sales of an album, from ticket sales at the box office. So at the end of the day it’s the filmmaker that’s gonna pay for then marketing. If they don’t have that marketing and social media background knowledge they are gonna have to pay someone to do it. It’s a catch 22 unless they break out of the mindset of being just a filmmaker who does a bit of editing …
You seem like you’d be an excellent person to have teaching a module on a film course. Do you ever do that?
I haven’t got stuck in properly with that it I’ve done a few talks here and there. We’ve obviously learnt a lot the hard way ourselves. We’ve got a big affinity with these filmmakers as they’ve come through the ranks ourselves, fighting off the competition. It’s tough out there. It was difficult to get noticed and get a foot in the door but then we reached a tipping point 4-5 years ago where everyone started to know us on the scene. You gotta keep at it, working long hours, chasing and researching .
You’ve got a lot of empathy for the underdog
Yes, completely. So at some stage maybe I’ll get round to doing some kind of module but we’re busy enough trying to keep this show on the road. The only reason we’re still here is because this is a passion project itself. This isn’t paying the rent. We’ll get there. We’re trying to build awareness so that somebody will come on board and sponsor us.
We’ve also got the video streaming platform Doc’n’Roll TV that we launched in November 2019. That’s a little alternative income stream. It’s another way for our audience to find the films, because we realised that people were coming up to us and asking where could they see films we’d shown two years before. They can’t find them. If you’re not a meticulous fan sometimes you can’t find the films so we realised there was another gap in the market there.
There’s some great things on there. I discovered things on there I didn’t know existed, like the Borbetomagus one.
That’s a left of field one if ever there was one! (laughs)
I used to have a load of Borbetomagus records. In the end I sold them all. I like the idea of them but it’s difficult listening!
Basically it’s an oddball channel for oddball music docs, just like our programme at the cinema is. Every now and again we’ll have something mainstream-ish for us like Foals. I don’t know if you’ve seen that? – we had the world premiere of that just before it went onto Amazon Prime as an Amazon Original (Rip Up the Road – free to view with Amazon Prime) We had a token one day screening of that, because it was made by Amazon and they didn’t want to release it to cinemas. That would be considered mainstream thing for us – we are very much left of centre.
Mostly left of Foals! …. I need to watch that Braniac one.
It’s a great one as well.
When I was living in Liverpool I put a Braniac show on in a pub there.
I would love to have seen them. I knew very little about them until I saw the film. Looked like an amazing band.
Who is begging to have a documentary made about them that hasn’t happened yet?
Curtis Mayfield. Curtis is for me one that stands out as one I can’t believe hasn’t been done. There must be a story there as to why it hasn’t been made – some next of kin that don’t want it made or something. And Marvin Gaye – there isn’t a cinematic one. The BBC have made 2 or 3 BBC4 ones but I’m not a fan of those – they’re all the same format, all lazy, really slapdash put together. Marvin Gaye would be for me another big one that really needs attending too. I’m surprised that Stevie Wonder doesn’t really have one. He’s still around so maybe he doesn’t want one but I’m surprised no-one has put together a cinematic doc about him – by that I mean something that’s good enough that you’d get up off your couch and go out your door and pay £12 to watch , with nice surround sound and artistic imagery. The other thing with those BBC ones or those Sky Arts ones is that urgent have no vision, filler tv for a late night Friday screening.
They’re not labours of love …
No, that’s just the information packaged together into a neat little format. There you go.
Some of best left field documentaries take the not obvious subjects – they’re gonna tell you the story of some obscure band you’ve never heard of!
Absolutely Ian, that’s what we’ve been trying to develop over the last 6 years. It’s quite difficult because we find that at least 50% of our audience are narrow minded – if it’s not about their band then they’re not interested – and the other 50% think, ok these guys are showing some random mad odd ball stuff and maybe I’ll give it a go. We’re trying to become a brand that people will trust cause there’s loads of stuff that comes in to me that I’ve no idea about but i take a look at it and see that it’s connected with this band or that band … The Braniac one was like that, I didn’t know who they were but I saw they were connected to Beck and other Dayton Ohio bands (they toured with Beck, other Dayton bands include The Breeders and Guided By Voices – Ed) … a lot of people wouldn’t know Braniac at all. That’s part of the problem – The Braniac doc only played to 55 people in London. We take a lot of risks with our films. Sometimes in London where we can take a lot more risks – because we are showing 30 films across two and a half weeks – we don’t expect the films to have more than 50 people at them. Sometimes we just want to give the filmmaker a break. Bigger festivals might think fuck it we’re not gonna show a film if only 50 people are going to come. People appreciate that, so it’s a word of mouth thing and we’re that over the next few years people will trust our programming and take a risk on stuff they’ve never heard of.
Well I appreciate your punk attitude
That’s the way we set up the whole festival to begin with. We didn’t have a background in organising cinema screenings, we just threw ourselves da in with that punk attitude and blagged our way into it, pulled the wool over the eyes of the cinema by saying we had some experience, which we didn’t, and the rest is history!
Ian Lawton hosts Trainspotters on 1BTN, a twice monthly show of eclectic mellowness. On Friday 29th October 1-3pm he will be speaking to Doc’n’Roll’s Brighton coordinator Sam Chandler.