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Cannes Profiles: Meet Helen Dewitt

May 26, 2013

Photograph by Amy Binns ©

I’m here in Cannes for the 66th Film Festival as a runner for Picturehouse Cinemas. During my time I’ll be meeting up with several industry heads to get an insight into the Film business and to hear what film they’re looking forward to most at the festival.

I caught up with Helen Dewitt, Festivals Producer.

Amy Binns: How would you describe what you do?

Helen Dewitt: I’m the producer of BFI London Film Festival and BFI London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. I make sure that both the festivals are organised and delivered on the most basic level. That included venues, staffing, print logistics, which I don’t do directly but I ensure they happen. I manage the sub-departments, so the education and industry areas of the festival and I also look after public partnerships which is the festivals relationship with people like Film London, Creative Skillset and The Mayor’s Office. Those are the main areas I cover, but we are a small team so we all do some programming and when the festivals are on I do Q&As, write notes for the brochure and things like that. In simplistic terms my job is making sure that all the pieces of the festivals are in place rather than the content, although I do contribute to that as well.

AB: How did you get into the industry?

HD: I studied Art History and Philosophy at the university of Essex and when I left there I was working at the Tate Gallery, which was before the Tate Modern existed. I was the exhibition assistant, which was mainly selling tickets and post cards. Then I got a job in the publications department, looking after the photo library and commissioning photography, which was great, but my real ambition rather naively, was to become a curator of modern art. But I soon realised that unless you’ve been to particular colleges, have particular contacts, that that was never going to happen. My equal love was cinema, so as soon as I moved to London I was seeing all the films that I could in all the repertory cinemas that were around at the time. I knew then that I wanted to move into cinema. I applied for a job as assistant manager of the Electric Cinema on Portabello Road, so that was my first job in film. I wanted to get into programming and I made a few terrible mistakes along the way, programming films that I thought were a good idea with little understanding of the audience. But we all need to make mistakes in order to learn. It was Liz Wrenn who was doing the programming and when she stepped down to do other things so my colleague and I, started to do the programming. I was there about two years, then I went to the Scala cinema where I was doing a similar job but with no venue management, just programming. I had a couple of jobs after that, one at Cinenova a woman’s film distribution company, the other was at the Lux, which was the centre for film, video and digital arts. Unfortunately, that only lasted a brief five years before the funding was pulled, the remnants of Lux is now Lux Distribution.

There used to be a circuit of cinemas called the Regional Film Theaters, places like the Watershead Bristol, The Corner House in Manchester, were both part of this circuit that were centrally programmed by the BFI. Jobs in this industry don’t come up very often, but there was an opening at the BFI for a job in that department, I got the job. We put on touring packages based on programmes that had played at the BFI Southbank, or from other places, like the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. We also did several series of all different types of film, Swedish cinema for example. We wanted films that were great but hadn’t got distribution to get played so we created things around them in order to get them out there and seen.

AB: What advice would you give to someone trying to get their foot in the door?

HD: Be persisten, but politely persistent. Make as many contacts as possible and learn as much as you can. You could subscribe to screen daily and find out about the business, watch a lot of films, be out and about. If possible start doing your own projects. It depends what area of the business you want to be in. If you want to be a film maker, start making cheap films and learn the basics, or go to film school. If it is other areas of the business think about how you can proactively get involved. It doesn’t necessarily mean doing an internship, it can just mean devising a project that you want to do. Sometimes you can do an internships which are be great, but they can also be the opposite. It also depends what company you do it with, an internship in a smaller company is probably more useful, because you’re able to get try more things and really get stuck in.

AB: Which film are you looking forward to seeing most at the Festival and why?

HD: That is an interesting question, it is difficult because there are so many, you get the list from the competition and you think ‘ohh there are some great directors here’ but you haven’t really got an idea. I was looking forward to the Jodorowsky, THE DANCE OF REALITY. I love his work and he is a great guy but the film was quite disappointing. However, the documentary about Jodorowsky, JODOROWSKY’S DUNE was really good. Dune was a very popular book in the 70s and he got the rights to make the film,  he put together these amazing collaborators and it never got made. The doc was hugely entertaining, people who love films love films about filmmaking, so I enjoyed it a lot. But I usually try to look out for the smaller films that might get missed, particularly films that have a bit more experimentation about them or films that are about women’s experiences, I really liked SARAH PREFERS TO RUN by Chloé Robichaud.

AB: What film do you predict to be the talk of Cannes this year

HD: I think I would have to say the Hirokazu Kore-eda’s, LIKE FATHER LIKE SON. It seems to be the one that everyone has been really moved by. People have also liked THE PAST, but there is a divide on it. Some people say it is treading the same turf as his last film, A SEPARATION, but others have loved it.

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