Chichester International Film Festival – turns 30

Ralph Fiennes was one of the guests one year - pictured with Roger
Ralph Fiennes was one of the guests one year – pictured with Roger

Roger Gibson, artistic consultant and chairman of the Chichester Cinema in New Park, admits the past few weeks have been stressful.

But at the same time he knows there is also a real sense of accomplishment as he prepares the program for this year’s 30th Chichester International Film Festival, which runs from August 11-28 this summer.

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As festival director, Roger is already well advanced on the half of the festival that he can plan with some certainty: the part of the festival that includes retrospectives, tributes and celebrations of important cinematic anniversaries.

But it is only when he returns from Cannes that he will be able to confirm – probably in June – the new releases and previews that make up the other half of the festival.

It is a furiously charged period.

Roger turns 84 at this year’s festival. He’s still scouring major European festivals looking for gems he can bring back to Chichester and he’s delighted to say he hasn’t caught Covid yet.

Clearly, little can come between Roger and making this year’s 30th film festival one to remember, one worthy of the anniversary.

As he says, when he looks back on how far the festival has come – an offshoot of the Chichester cinema in New Park – it has truly been a remarkable story.

“The film festival started in 1992 and it was in July as part of the Chichester festivities as they were then, and I started it with maybe around 30 films over ten days. I thought it would be something worth developing in Chichester, a chance to show films that wouldn’t normally be available on our normal schedule. I think it was probably about five to six months into the planning and someone had asked me to do something for the festival and it went well. But in that first year, because it was part of the Chichester festivities, it tended to get swallowed up in everything else they were doing, which was basically a big music festival, so the following year, we went in August which was much better for us especially as we had more control over the venue in August.

“What we discovered in that first year was that it appealed to different people. It attracted people who were interested in seeing things they wouldn’t normally see, and it was really just an expansion of our programming that we were already doing. We managed to offer a good mix of things. and it’s really amazing to think that it has gone from what it was then to a major international film festival which is now celebrating its 30th anniversary.

“The shift to August has been better although I don’t think the film festival has seen significant growth for several years.

“It was about getting our reputation, which we needed to build.

“I had to work on my negotiating skills with film distributors. You have to persuade people to give you a movie for a series or two before it even comes out, so they want to know you have a good reputation.

“You have to build trust and I’m happy to say I’m still working with some of the distributors I started working with at the time.

“You create trust and you build negotiations.

“When you’re trying to make a festival you have to be able to say to people ‘Well we did this last year and so this year we’re going to do this and this. We were the only film festival here and we still are.

Does that mean things have gotten easier over the years? Absolutely not and it’s because of the standards that Roger has set for himself.

“It’s gotten harder because I’m getting more and more ambitious every year.

“For the last few years I’ve been working to get more films from overseas and last year during the pandemic we resisted having a kind of hybrid festival.

“We wanted real physical screenings and we managed to get around ten films from Europe, most of which have never been screened here. Last year I said we had to have our 29th festival otherwise we wouldn’t have a 30th!

“And it was great that we sold out for the first time in over a year because of the pandemic.

“I think it’s up to others to say what the festival has achieved, but it gets harder in terms of ambition and just trying to challenge and grow the festival.

“It certainly lengthened in terms of days.

“We went from ten days to 18 and started doing outdoor screenings at Chichester Cathedral and then Priory Park and moved from an auditorium to then started using the studio and now we’re are enlarged again. Last year we also started using the Guildhall and just tried to expand things in terms of locations and scope.

“I always start by telling myself that I have to do at least as well as last year with the festival. I feel a terrible sense of responsibility.

“But of course I like doing it too.

“Last year we managed to get the film The Duke (the extraordinary story of a masterpiece held hostage in Newcastle in exchange for free television licenses for pensioners).

“The movie was supposed to come out in September last year and so it was the right time for us to have it at the end of August and so everything was sorted out.

“We had it printed, then I got a call from Warner Brothers who told me that Pathé, the owner of the film, had said it was too early to show the film. They wanted to keep it until April or March.

“I climbed the wall!” We had it as a gala in our brochure. I said ‘Can we still have it anyway?’

“I thought maybe we could have it as a surprise movie but they said no. But I asked them to come back to Pathé and a few days later I got a phone call and they said “Are you seated? I have good news! Pathé has agreed to let you show the film!”

“I said ‘What made them change their minds?’ and they said “I think it was a combination of your enthusiasm for the film and your stubbornness!”

An answer that no doubt explains the success of the Chichester International Film Festival from its inception…

2022 will mark 60 years of Chichester Festival Theatre; ten years of the Chichester Festival; 40 years of the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester; 30 years of Chichester Cinema at the New Park International Film Festival; ten years of the Novium Museum; and 200 years of the Canal Trust.

It is also the 75th anniversary of the National Trust at Petworth House.

Gerald R. Schneider