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A Day in the Life of an Artistic Director - Maeve McGrath of the Kerry Film Festival
28 Jun 2017 : Katie McNeice
Maeve McGrath with Sundance Winner Jim Cummings & Oscar nominated Michael Creagh
When it comes to learning the ropes in the film industry, one of the key things anyone will tell you is it is not enough just to shoot your film or even get a fantastic final cut. The real work starts with promoting your project, building a dialogue around it and opening doors to the next big opportunity.

Knowing the ins and outs of a film festival is an absolute must, not just for travelling with your work, but for creating the opportunity to join a festival team at some stage in your career. From marketing to programming and networking, they are a mine of information on our industry and the people in it.

In our latest A Day in the Life interview Artistic Director Maeve McGrath talks us through her road to overseeing one of the fastest growing festivals in Ireland. From here she breaks down the format of the Kerry Film Festival team, her role and hones in on the importance of crafting good relationships in the arts.

IFTN: What exactly is your role and what are your primary responsibilities as an Artistic Director?

“Some festivals are a little different, so they may not have an Artistic Director. They might have a Director and then a Programmer and various different people around them. I am the Artistic Director at the Kerry Film Festival, and I have programmers who work with me during the festival season to help with submissions.

“Basically my remit is to look after the whole festival, making sure the submissions are on time, that we get a good pool of submissions to select from and that we have a series of events organised at the festival from start to finish.

“We also work on events that go on throughout the year, so people are always calling us about various different things. Even though the festival happens at a specific time, my responsibilities can run all year round.”

IFTN: What kinds of films are you seeing submitted recently and where do you usually screen?

“We get a lot of people who submit and come from all over (particularly from Europe, which is fantastic) who come to Kerry to see their films. It’s great for us as well because we are often the premier festival for them.

“We screen at Cinema Killarney who are amazing. Because everything is moving, as you know, toward DCP, other formats are a thing of the past and it’s important that we screen somewhere that is accessible. Tom Cooper who runs Cinema Killarney is a significant support to the festival, we screen there and also in some lovely little churches in Killarney. We screened ‘Mise Éire’ there last year in the church in Killarney and that was lovely, plus the photos look great! [laughs] so there’s the added bonus of that. It’s a really nice option to have.”

IFTN: Talk me through your training background and what key skills you need to work in this role?

“I loved performing so I went to Trinity and studied theatre, went on to work in theatre and ended up in telly, so it was a sort of funny journey I took. I was out in ‘Ros na Rún’ acting and this great opportunity came up with Gréasán na Meán, who were running a fantastic course on producing and developing.

“I was very lucky to have been part of that course in association with GMIT and it was that really set me on the road to producing film. I went on to produce my own short films along with being a producer for Limerick City of Culture 2014. I programmed the film Strand for Bram Stoker Festival and I am part of the creative team for Elemental, Limerick's Arts Festival. I did go back to college in Mary I, Limerick and did an MA in Media Studies and it was only after I completed my thesis titled, ‘Irish Short Film, The Road to Oscar’ that I applied for the job at Kerry Film Festival.

“In terms of skills, you need to be punctual, assertive and kind in this job. You also need a good general knowledge of film. I personally have a real love of the short form of film.”

IFTN: It’s interesting to see how people actually transition from theatre to film.

“And I still do act, this is the thing! I was in Vancouver before Christmas for ten days working on a theatre piece with Ireland’s, The Performance Corporation and Boca del Lupo. It has been a great gift to be able to go back and do that. The skills that you need to do that, like coordination, scheduling and similar, they all lend themselves to what I do in Kerry and elsewhere. There’s never a right course or a right time. All the experience you gain along the way adds up to help you. You can start in one place and end up somewhere else, and change as you go along. I went back with the experience of working in television and film and was able to bring that to my studies.”

IFTN: People can underestimate the value of those skills you pick up along the way. As you mentioned yourself there’s coordination, admin and business skills, but also just knowing how to treat people properly.

“That is incredibly important. You meet so many people along the way. For instance you could be screening somebody’s film and some reason it stops half way. It might be nobody’s fault but it is my job to go and find that filmmaker and say, ‘By the way, we are going to screen this again, don’t worry, it’ll be fine.’ If anyone is upset about something you need to make the effort to fix it, and when there are tough decisions to be made you need to make them with kindness.”

IFTN: Speaking of other people again, how does your role differ from other roles in festival management such as Marketing Manager or Festival Director, for instance?

“The Artistic Director is basically a Festival Director, who is responsible for the whole festival and then there are roles alongside, such as a Programmer, Marketing Manager or General Manager. Our General Manager looks after the running of the office, where you deal with things like bookings, screenings, dealing with film licences, making sure that everything is in order from a technical perspective, and addressing anything that comes in under the likes of tax or insurance.

“The Marketing Manager then looks after the branding of the festival, asking questions like ‘How does the festival look?’, and ‘Are press releases going out on time?’ They make sure to deal with all offline and online content, including making sure the festival is advertised on the road for instance, which means outdoor signage.

“My job as Artistic Director is really about the films. How do they look? Who do we have coming? What industry professionals will be here? Who are our invited guests? I make sure we look after our filmmakers as well and my Programmer works with me on that.”

IFTN: Unless you’re actually in it or speak to people, it can be hard as a newcomer to tell the difference between all these aspects.

“There are so many roles you see and festivals can run differently; some festivals are run by committee and they don’t necessarily have an Artistic Director. You might have one with a CEO and Programmer for instance. The Kerry Film Festival is similar to many European models in that we do have an Artistic Director, who is essentially the face of the festival making sure things are running right, quality work is showcased and emerging filmmakers are supported as well.”

IFTN: You’ve mentioned other work outside the festival as well. As it is somewhat seasonal, is there anything else besides acting you or the rest of the team do when the festival isn’t as ramped up?

“Yes, although we do work pretty much all year around on Kerry Film Festival, the festival really kicks into action from June to October with Open Air screenings in County Kerry and then the programming of the festival for October.

“We have some people at entry level, who know a certain amount about film or who might be filmmakers themselves. They stay with us for the festival period to get experience and so may go back to college, filmmaking or writing. For myself, I was Line Producer on the national tour of ‘The Dead Opera’ this year.

”That time period suits me perfectly, just as we’re winding down for Kerry. Coming into October is our busiest time and for me it’s great because I find work that slots in around that. My agent who is based in London is fantastic, so she makes sure I know when auditions come up and I could be either acting or producing when I’m not doing this.”

IFTN: It’s funny you mentioned the European model the festival follows as well, because the reputation of the Kerry Film Festival has gotten bigger and bigger each year.

“I didn’t actually realise until I got into it how big it is in other parts of the world. I know in Ireland it’s one thing, but about 65% of our submissions are from Europe, America, Australia and further afield. It’s extraordinary that we are known that widely and people want to submit to us. We have screened Oscar Winners, such as Benjamin Cleary’s ‘Stutterer’ and Oscar-nominated films such as Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly’s ‘Head Over Heels’ and people notice that. I asked one guy last year why he submitted to Kerry and he said, ‘I looked at where Benjamin Cleary had sent his films and worked from there.’”

IFTN: You have emphasised the importance of treating people properly whether that means simply being patient, respectful or kind. Do you have anything else to add to that or can you give us an example of when you thought that was most important?

“There are many times in the arts when you’re not treated with respect and then there are times when you’re treated with the uppermost respect, and I am grateful for that. I started off cleaning the dressing room floors and picking people’s wardrobe off the ground so I’ve been at the very bottom of the ladder and worked my way up. I’ve changed careers in moving into producing over acting as much. I’ve seen that being kind, being respectful, being on time, or even just being prepared is such an important thing. There’s nothing worse than walking onto a set with someone who hasn’t learned their lines when you’ve learned yours. That happens quite frequently but when it doesn’t happen it’s wonderful. You need to be ready.

“I see people learning all these skills in media colleges and courses, and anything you learn along the way will help you. But let me tell you, if you’re making a short film you need to know how to put a budget together if you’re tight for funding. You need to know how to put a schedule together, so if Mary is coming in on Monday and Wednesday, but not Tuesday, you have to let her know that.

“I was rubbish at maths in school–I hated it! [laughs] And here I am doing budgets in Excel spreadsheets. That’s only a basic level of accounting but I never thought I’d see myself doing it, and needed to find the confidence in myself to do that. Like I said, I wish I was better at technical things; I don’t know one end of a scart lead from another [laughs] so I still need to learn these things as well. I have great people around me who can do all these things but it would be great to be able to say, ‘Wait a second, that cable isn’t plugged in properly’, because at the moment I don’t know. Hopefully I can build on that this year, which is my aim.”

IFTN: You can learn just about anything from the people around you in film when you trust them, can’t you?

“It’s a partnership isn’t it, this process? It’s all about good relationships and I always go back to people I’ve worked with over the years. I always enjoy being able to go back to people I’ve worked with in the arts before and say, ‘Let’s get together and work together again on this’. “The arts can be a lonely business, you move from job to job persistently and you might make a film, be great pals, and then never see them again. So it’s really nice to be able to go back and find people.

“To people starting off, I would say, be honest and respectful when dealing with everyone you work with. I don't make promises that I can't keep. There are often tough decisions to be made and you have to face them and be confident in your decision making. You will never know everything. I am constantly learning, finding new films that entertain me and festivals that inspire me. Every skill that you bring on board will help in a career in the media and film business. I wear many hats and have brought many new skills to bear from my career decisions.”

The 2017 Kerry Film Festival runs from October 19th-22nd in Killarney, Co. Kerry. Keep an eye on the IFTN News where we will be sharing announcements on the programme and other events.




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