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netribution > features > interview with sarah wren > page two

What are you going to do with these films once they are shot?
We are going to market them in the best way we can, certainly going to have some screening nights and a gala but we need these people to be known in the West End as well. We'll also go to MPC and De Lane Lea for a West End screening.

This is a format that could easily work in every London borough isn't it?
Yes but it's already happening in a couple but maybe not so pro actively. This will be a stepping stone for filmmakers to take work up a level to the East London Film Fund - they've got a budget of £80,000 and are already European funded. You asked me what we are going to do with the films and that's a naturally critical question because so many filmmakers go out and sell their grandmother to make a short film. The crime is that the film ends up on a dusty shelf.

Are you accepting all mediums?
Yes, what I wanted to do was to keep it as open and free as possible. We're also accepting all genres, it might be a hugely experimental film, it might be a drama or a doco. We'll obviously take them to Peeping Tom's and Halloween, we will try everything possible to help the filmmakers market their film. Why I'm not committing myself is that I haven't got a lot of money stacked up to do that - I've got some but not a lot - I'd like to take these films to Cannes but I can't promise that yet. Part of our bid for European funding is to set up the fund but also to create a distribution network that should overcome the existing problems. A small distribution arm, perhaps with a bigger distributor, for people based in the borough - we could then send out the films to festivals for free and I'd be out there networking for them. The Turner Classic Movie competition was a good thing this year and the reason was that they had a huge amount of money to give away, but also that the films got a screening night at the London Film Festival. For any filmmaker to see their film up on NFT1 is an awesome experience and it was packed out, and who was there? It wasn't all filmmakers, there must have been some industry there. It really worked and we were really lucky in that we had a short film called Suspended submitted at the last moment to the Stella Short Film competition - it won. The two guys who wrote and directed it have now been picked up by ICM so it shows that a little amount goes a long way.

How long have you been the Tower Hamlets film office?
6 years but most of that time was spent setting up the locations office which is very different, it was very front line. You are dealing with big companies and big names, we are very good at attracting TV commercials - partly because we are competitively priced but also because we are one of the few boroughs that will do road closures.

What's involved in that?
It's quite weird in that you have to work across the whole council and for the first three years it was like knocking my head on a bloody wall. If you ask someone in Highways to close a road they'd say no, none of the acts allow that so I'd have to persuade them to be slightly inventive with the wording of those acts. People also had this image about funding - it was firstly about money and secondly about egos, we had to dispel both of those misconceptions.

In your location work, what sort of problems have you encountered?
I can't think of any to be honest because in the last 3 years of doing it, it was all going so smoothly, there are bureaucratic problems - filmmakers are renowned for doing things at very short notice. We did the location for a film with Minnie Driver but she was suddenly rushed off to hospital with appendicitis, the location manager could be seen running around trying to rearrange all the locations. Councils can be a little inflexible so trying to arrange mass parking at 2 hours notice is impossible but you've got to try to make it happen, from an industry point of view every day of filming lost costs something like £60,000. Part of you thinks that you haven't the man power to pull it off and why should someone in parking control have to work overtime, you aren't giving residents enough notice either - there's a conflict within me as well. That's because I'm extremely committed to this community, that's why I've moved across to this, the industry has got to start working for East London and I can't make that happen by knocking out locations.

Sorry to keep going back to it but to close a road you need the police involved surely?
The police have been brilliant. It's about talking to people and explaining that it won't be a bunch of long-haired tossers coming in being really arrogant. It's an industry that needs support, look how much money it makes in the States and how good that is for the local community and businesses. It's stressing that the whole time, it's not about egos it's about creating an industry that works.

What have the community been like with al your work?
Absolutely fantastic! A really good response and we've never had a nasty time on a shoot but Tower Hamlets is somewhere that went through huge decentralisation from central government. We set up residents' committees and we consulted at a very low level so we will go to enormous lengths to make sure people know what's going on. Spittalfields has probably the best Georgian streets in London and they also very narrow and difficult to shoot but everyone wants to shoot there. It's a part of my job to find an arrangement that suits the residents as well as the film industry, the latter has to understand that they are not the only film crew to come in there, they have to leave it in the same state that they found it. That understanding has taken a while to come around.

How quick is the turnover of locations?
It depends where it is and they go in and out of fashion. When I started it was all Victorian locations like Columbia road, then it was gangster which required dodgy back alleys and moody staircases and snooker halls. Then Spittalfields kicked in with it's Georgian style, that's always busy though - Velvet Goldmine was there for example and I can't explain it. When a good location is seen on screen, lots of people get to see it and want it, it's a small part of the industry - I've only dealt with about 100 location managers on a regular basis. The relationship is quite personal in a way, we chat together so whenever a new location comes along everybody gets to hear about it quite quickly - because it's new and fresh it gets popular very quickly. There are some long stayers like Bethnal Green Town Hall, now owned privately but is managed by the council, has a shoot booked for every single week of the year. Once we managed to open it's doors it attracted a huge amount of filmmakers to the area. We had to be very aggressive with the council but another contributing factor was the opening of the Truman Brewery building on Brick Lane, it's become a real production unit base. Also, films like Lock, Stock had a big effect on the area's popularity.

What more could be done for filmmakers in this area?
So much more. We need to build up the industry in terms of studios, facilities houses, we haven't got a lab in East London - we need a lab! We need a lab so badly, people have to go up to Heathrow or North London to get dailies - it's a nightmare. We haven't adequate exhibition space either - we haven't got a cinema. The Genesis is opening as well as the UGC, which is great. As well as events like Halloween, 93ft East and the rest there are a load of things happening around here and that's what we are trying to promote. In terms of how we can help location managers and productions coming in…we need to broaden our vision and we need to be more aware of the services we have here.

When foreign filmmakers come over here to shoot, how do they see the situation?
I did a small American shoot at a time when I was very hands on, they had a small school opened up and the parking arranged and they thought it was brilliant. Someone from New York coming over here would just think that it's a complete nightmare. Comparisons are always made between the LFC's work and that of the New York Film Office but you've got to look at where New York came from and how the film industry took to it. It's a very different attitude towards filmmaking, who invests in film over here?

What, specifically, is driving you on this mission?
Passion for the area and passion for film, equally!

To Contact Sarah, call the Tower hamlet's Film Office on 020 7364 4113
or email -

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