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Running your film festival and not losing your head

The UK’s Independent Cinema Office has been running the Developing Your Film Festival training course since 2010. It is the world’s only professional development course for people working at film festivals.  The course has so far trained over 200 people from more than 50 different countries worldwide, and takes place in a different location each year. The course is delivered by experts from leading festivals from around the world. One of them is Juul Veenboer, a Head of IT Department at International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). Juul has experience in working with festival locations, technique, events, volunteers, and logistics. She is also involved with ticketing, database implementation and the technical development of the website.

You have started your career as an intern in the International Film Festival Rotterdam. What has entangled your interest in working at a film festival?

Well, I always went to this film festival and I really liked it. Actually, the first time I visited the festival was with my parents. Later, during my study years, I thought it would be a really cool place to work in and I did the internship, not really knowing what to expect. I really enjoyed it and consequently, I stayed here… for a long time.

You have worked in various departments within the festival. Currently, you are Head of IT Department. What are the strengths of changing work positions in the festival?

It especially has been really helpful for a job I have now. I kind of oversee all the digital work process we have. Thus, it is very handy that I have worked in many departments so I have inside knowledge and information about work process there. I think it helps you understand other departments better if you know them, been working for them. I have colleagues who are in the same place for a long time, who specialize in their subject. For me, I really enjoy seeing that much of the festival. However, I wouldn’t say that other people should definitely do that. For instance, to build a career for a festival programmer it takes a lot of years and involvement, changing departments for them wouldn’t work.

You are Head of IT Department in IFFR. The festival states that it decided to pay more attention to IT and innovation. Why are these two traits important for a film festival?

IT can make your life easier, for starters. The best communication you have is throughout your website. So it has to work and look nice. Basically, it should always develop. Our festival has a big programme it can overwhelm a person and it becomes difficult to know where to start from. For this reason, we have developed an online first aid kit with questions that help a person to navigate through the website. We have also developed a mobile application, which focuses on a persons’ visit during the festival. Basically, the website gives you all the information and the app – the information you need when you visit the actual festival. We want to keep up with all the developments, so our focus is to be technically ready to switch when needed. If there is a new possibility to adapt, we want to implement it in the festival. It is important to keep up.

I guess it is not only important to make it easier for the audience to navigate, but your colleagues too?

Yeah! We really take a close look at all the digital processes and we seek for what we can improve. Two different Excel sheets means mistakes and sometimes we bump into colleagues who have 13 Excel sheets. We don’t want to digitalize everything because some work just needs to be done by hand. But there are things that can be done in a different way to make your life easier. We look at ways to make it and I want to see if we can get rid of those Excels in the offices.

You mentioned that while developing your website you would like it to be handy for the audience. How are you learning what your audience needs?

We know our audience fairly good, we give them suggestions based on their previous activities and by doing research. We are still learning a lot about how to segment our target groups and what to offer them. We try to make it more and more personal. For example, if a person goes to 13 Japanese films if we have something in the newsletter about Japanese films that is one of the first topics in that persons’ newsletter. We want to turn this way because then a person gets a newsletter that makes him happy and makes him feel more involved and engaged. We are not there yet, it is something that should evolve during coming years, but that’s the way we want to go. If we offer you good service, you will comeback more often.

When you worked as a Head of Production for IFFR, you have managed a lot of people at once. What were your tactics to maintain a relationship and quality communication with the people you coordinate?

It is difficult. What I try to do is to keep the core team that is involved in all the producers really close. We have meetings every morning every day, during the festival. Of course, before the festival, you have more time, and then it is important to make sure that there is room for fun. As everybody knows, film festivals are hard work so I always try to make sure that everybody is connected and has a nice time. Still, with such a big crowd, it is complicated, especially two weeks before the festival when it gets really hectic. This is the crucial moment when you start losing people and connections with them because everyone has too much on their plate. That’s the time you have to pay a really close attention to all the processes going on.

With volunteers, it is a little bit different. It is difficult when you are in the office year long, developing policies and agendas, how a director or a guest should be met. Those volunteers, people who actually need to do it are not part of that decision-making process. Moreover, I am not standing there behind them making sure that it is done the way we planned. It is very important and yet difficult to get all the processes that you developed during the year out from your head into theirs. Trying to make sure everybody gets the essentials we had made an animation film, showing how it should be done. This year we made a quiz, making sure that everybody reads the material we send, because everyone wants to score 10. It is a challenge we are learning from.

Several times you have mentioned that two weeks before the festival are the most hectic. I am sure that there are colleagues who are in those two weeks period at the moment. What would you say to them?

Good luck, it‘s too late! Two weeks before the festival are the most stressful weeks. I would only wish them good luck. The thinking process should be over then, you should only be thinking about doing the job you have thought of earlier. The only things I can say are keep up the good work and the hard work.

But I think, we, working in the film festivals, tend to look at our events year round. After the festival, you feel tired, but you have to look ahead, to 2020, 2021, to your next edition. You really have to focus on what are my goals, what do I want to achieve and what do I need to do now for the festival for coming years. Because of the hard work, festivals sometimes tend to not take enough time to think about their profile in the few years. If you want to still be active in few years then you have to look forward. I think because of limited budget and time that’s sometimes forgotten.

Meanwhile planning this year festival you should also foresee its future?

Yes. We are looking ahead and making plans because there will be important decisions in the future. We at IFFR want it to be more innovative and make more difference than we already make. Thus, if we want to achieve those goals we have to find space to think. And working in the festival, I know that this is a challenge to find that time and space, but that’s important.


The course is funded by Creative Europe and the British Council. This year the ICO is proud to be delivering the course in partnership with Vilnius International Film Festival from 20-25th March.