How Leeds International Film Festival's online adaptation during Covid has helped to transform the event for 2021 and beyond

Lights, camera, action. Recline your seat, put up your feet and grab your popcorn. Immy Share speaks to the director of Leeds International Film Festival about the city’s filmmaking industry, festival culture and plans for future events.

Sunday, 23rd May 2021, 4:45 am
Chris Fell, manager of the Leeds International Film Festival, pictured at Leeds Town Hall. (photo: Bruce Rollinson)

Some might say the past year has been somewhat like a film.

Life has paused, it has played, it has taken sudden turns: some expected, and others not so.

But most of all, we’ve all been hoping for that happy ending.

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Chris Fell wants to help Leeds and Yorkshire become high profile in filmmaking (photo: Bruce Rollinson)

It’s now starting to feel like we’re in those last few minutes of the movie - things are coming together again, starting to conclude and we are adjusting back to normality and back into the real world.

And, it’s been much of the same for the Leeds International Film Festival, which, like many other events across the city, had to adapt from its normality when the pandemic hit last year.

Director Chris Fell tells of how the festival adapted to become a pandemic-friendly event, which happened to be one of much success.

He said: “We had a lot of notice that our film festival was going to be different last year as it takes place every November, so we weren’t in the position like some in other cities that were planned for March or April and suddenly had to shut and make other plans urgently.

“We had from March until November to develop an alternative online streaming platform and eventually worked with a New Zealand based company who work with film festivals across the world, such as Cannes, to build a platform which became Leeds film player.

“We streamed all of our films on there during the festival and although we really missed being in cinemas, our audiences were really happy about having an alternative, so it worked pretty well.

“We were able to extend our festival from two weeks to a full month and the audience feedback was fantastic as they were so relieved that we were able to offer something rather than cancel the festival completely.”

Leeds International Film Festival is usually held in a variety of venues in Leeds city centre, including cinemas, the Town Hall and the conversion of Victoria Hall into a 1,000-seater cinema.

Mr Fell told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “We do love the fantastic atmosphere we usually get from being in a cinema but it did actually turn out to be a bit of a lockdown success.

“Not only were the team able to appreciate the online showings because we actually got to see the films ourselves rather than working while they were showing, but we also got to keep the films online for a whole month for people to watch whenever they wanted.”

Mr Fell said that the 2020 festival was also able to attract new audiences from different parts of the country, including bringing back the opportunity for those who have moved away from Leeds to be involved again.

He added: “Last year helped us to raise our profile and while Leeds is driving its national and international status culturally, it feels like the film festival can now help to achieve that with its audience reach.

“It’s really important that regional cities are putting on their own events and that these activities are getting national attention because they’re purely run by local people with local resources.

“Going forward, we want to now use our online player as a complementary offer to our November 2021 programme and add to the films that we will hopefully be showing in actual cinemas again.

“The addition of the online player this year as well as in-person screenings is an expansion, because before Covid hit some film festivals had only dabbled with streaming platforms and now it really has transformed how film festivals can actually work.”

Mr Fell hopes that the new online streamer can be used as an extra this year, including to screen interviews with directors or cast members following film showings.

He added: “We just want to help Leeds and Yorkshire become high profile in filmmaking.

“We have a film festival for youngsters and for those aged 16 to 25 as well so the idea is to create a journey for audiences and filmmakers as they progress so that they can feel part of each festival at any age, as a journey.

“It’s important for us to give people the skills to filmmake in Leeds which contribute to Leeds being a cultural centre to display to a wider audience across the UK and around the world.”