We Out Here: LOCO London Comedy Film Festival

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We Out Here, is a series exploring the ways in which alternative organisations across the UK are helping to provide jobs, support and funding to the creative arts.

LOCO or the London Comedy Film Festival is a not-for-profit organisation that discovers and develops the best in new comedy film. Founded in 2010 by Denise Hicks and Jonathan Wakeham, the festival was created from the success of a one-off screening of parody classic Airplane! and is now about to celebrate its seventh year at BFI Southbank. As well as screening off-the-wall classics and family favourites, LOCO supports emerging comedy filmmakers, writers and producers through its training and masterclass programmes (that has included the likes of Alice Lowe and Ben Wheatley as guest speakers) and has helped shine a light on more experimental and politically charged types of comedy as well as pave the way for a new era of comedy masterminds.

The comedy genre has always struggled to be taken seriously as an art form. LOCO’s festival programming is successful in proving that comedy can be used as a way to open up discussions around taboo subjects and the sociopolitical issues of modern society and everyday life.

Comedy doesn’t get the respect it deserves and yet it’s one of the biggest sellers at the box office.

Denise explains the importance of comedy as a genre and how it came to be the basis for their festival...

“We were talking about setting up a film festival or a cinema, and we happened upon the idea of comedy because, apart from the fact that we both really like comedy, it just seemed really interesting that comedy didn’t have a film festival when there were probably over 150 film festivals in the UK. It seemed really important, particularly from a British-heritage perspective, because we have this incredible tradition of comedy in the UK and yet it doesn’t really win awards. For the Oscars it’s bundled in with musicals, which is really weird. A lot of very well-known actors who have performed in comedy, be it Cary Grant, or Katharine Hepburn or Meryl Streep, none of them have ever won a Best Actor award for a comedy performance.

“The more we looked into it, the more interesting it became. Comedy doesn’t get the respect it deserves and yet it’s one of the biggest sellers at the box office, so there’s this dichotomy between how well it’s doing and how underappreciated it is. We thought it would be really interesting to do a festival based on comedy –  to celebrate how good we are at it and to show some old classics, but also to celebrate some of the rising stars of British independent comedy.”

LOCO’s first event was held nine years ago on the 30th anniversary of Airplane!’s release at the Prince Charles Cinema and what had originated as a one-off screening soon spiralled into a full-scale event with Airplane’s directors, writers and its lead actor flying to the UK for the night. That first screening kick-started was to become the UK’s biggest comedy film festival.

“We booked it with the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square, which seemed like the right venue for something quite cheesy and fun. I literally just looked into whether I could get someone to do an interview for a Q&A. I went on IMDB and looked down the cast and crew list. There’s a kid in the film who goes into the cockpit who now would be an adult, so I thought maybe we could get him to come and do an interview. I thought, ‘I’ll just work my way down,’ assuming by the time I get to the bottom someone might do it. I called the agent of the directors David and Jerry Zucker and said, ‘would you be interested?’ And they said yes! So the writers and directors came over to London, which we were not prepared for. Then we managed to get the lead actor Robert Hays to fly over because he has cousins in London – he paid for his own flight! Suddenly, we had the writers, directors and the lead doing it. We thought, ‘this is actually kind of proper now…’

“Then, a week before the event, Leslie Nielsen died. Suddenly it became this tribute that everybody was writing about – it had gone a bit out of control. It sold out overnight. We could have run it three or four times. It was weird, ridiculous and just luck, to be honest. We had to really hastily create a logo, website and bank account because we were doing the event. It’s amazing how easy it is when you don’t have a choice.

“After that we kind of went ‘it looks like we’re in business, we might as well carry on!’ We spent a year trying out different types of events to see what fitted and felt right. We didn’t rush it too much. We did some kids’ workshops, a mini festival at Wilton’s in East London. We did some live stuff, one-off screenings and a couple of premieres in conjunction with distribution companies. We got a feel for the brand and what it was about. In 2012, a year and a half after Airplane!, we put on our first film festival. We’ve got a very good sense now, of what it’s about and what it stands for. What works and what doesn’t. It’s taken seven years to get there and we’re still learning.”

Because LOCO is a not-for-profit organisation, it relies heavily on volunteers. For Denise and Jonathan, LOCO is a labour of love. And for many, volunteering at the festival is a stepping stone into the industry and a way to gain insight into the workings of a successful company.

“For our biggest year we had around 50 volunteers. There’s a body of volunteers who move between festivals. There’s often the usual suspects that you see at every festival and they do work their way up the ranks. After doing it for a few years they might become volunteer coordinator and, then event producer. So there’s definitely people who are using it as a career step and then there’s other people who do it because it looks like fun … and then there’s some people who do it and are completely useless! I think it’s really fun for people to get involved because they get to chat and network with some incredible filmmakers, and if they’re good they make themselves known and become indispensable, and they create a role of themselves. They have their sights on what they want to become and which bit of the festival or film world they want to get into, so they use it as an opportunity rather than just coming along and having a piss up.”

LOCO also runs a number of networking events that provide access to knowledge from industry professionals and a chance to meet budding comedy filmmakers and writers. Since many of the volunteers are emerging in the industry themselves, they are able to make use of the connections the festival offers. LOCO works differently to other festivals in its field because it treats filmmakers instead of the general public as its core audience, which is why LOCO’s networking events and masterclasses are at the very heart of the festival.

“We’ve always thought that the filmmakers are the ones who are most passionate about comedy in terms of the craft of comedy itself, so if you get them engaged and involved then the audience will come because not only will those filmmakers talk to other people and spread the word but also they will give you their best work. So it all starts with the filmmakers, which inherently means you have to have a really good selection of industry events.”

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We can never tell anyone what is funny because it’s too subjective, but what we can say is, this is how you find an agent, this is how you judge what your value is.

Their courses are aimed at people who are ready to turn filmmaking from a part-time job or hobby into a full-time career, but this year they are targeting those that are fresh into the industry too. LOCO shows us that there are benefits in hosting a festival that is as much about developing the next generation of comedy filmmakers as it is about entertaining the masses.

“In terms of positioning it, we’ve always been really, really clear that the training you get at LOCO is not about how to be funny: it’s about how to make a business from being funny or how to make money from being funny. We can never tell anyone what is funny because it’s too subjective, but what we can say is, this is how you find an agent, this is how you judge what your value is, this is how you ask for more money, this is how your find a commissioner, this is how you get stuff online. It’s about the business of comedy and that’s really, really important.

“Traditionally, it would be two intense days of talks and workshops and seminars with people like Alice Lowe and Julia Davis, or Peep Show’s Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong. We get people who are quite big career comedy filmmakers, writers and directors – and the audience are writers, directors and producers, and we try to make sure they get a really good insight into the craft of comedy filmmaking. But this year we’re going for shorter and more diverse sessions. We asked people what they wanted from the training and everyone said they want more workshops, more one-to-one surgeries and more hands-on development. So we’ve realised we’ve got to help people throughout the different stages of their career. Using hard skills and soft skills – hard skills being the technical craft, like what size lens do I need, and how do I judge the timing of a gag in an ensemble cast? And soft skills being, how do I promote myself? How do I put a reel together? How do I manage a career in comedy while juggling kids and household stuff? We should be talking to younger people who have just come into the industry and give them much more open and affordable training while also talking to the established artists about the really technical niche stuff.”

It’s about finding people who share your voice and your tone of comedy and your tastes.

On the important role that the BFI Southbank has played in shaping the festival, Denise says:

“The good thing about the BFI is that it acts like a hub. So anyone that’s into comedy knows they just have to go to BFI Southbank and they will meet other people who are filmmakers and that physical hub is really, really important because that’s where conversations happen. With filmmakers we’ve always said the most important thing is to find your gang. It’s about finding people who share your voice and your tone of comedy and your tastes. If you can find your gang in a hub then stuff is inevitably more likely to be made.”

Like most industries, the comedy world has ingrained problems surrounding diversity and there is still a lot to be done about its lack of inclusion. This is a particularly thorny subject in comedy, with marginalised groups historically being at the butt end of many comedy gags.

“There are too many white, middle-aged, middle-class men dominating comedy filmmaking. It’s the same across pretty much every industry but particularly in comedy and particularly in film. Jonathan went to one conference as a speaker – and I mean Jonathan is a white middle-class man, so bear that in mind – but he’s very, very pro-diversity and a very fervent feminist. But he went to this conference and he said it was really, really depressing. It was just white men in everything. And the problem is it’s just lazy. I don’t think it’s malicious but it’s just easy to find those people because they’re the usual suspects.

“From our perspective it just makes for a more interesting conversation if you have a more diverse panel. Comedy is so tribal and subjective in that wherever you go, be it geographically (even within the UK itself) or culturally, there’s a slightly different tone of comedy. It’s the same with gender, sexuality and culture. There are different jokes to be told. We need to hear from these voices for a more interesting texture of life, but even looking at it from a business point of view if nothing else, broadcasters and channels need more diversity to get their viewing numbers up. Otherwise you just churn out the same formula, which is what we’ve seen with a lot of white male comedy. It’s just kind of the same character, same sounds and same feelings over and over again.”

LOCO’s festival programme is refreshing in its attempt to tackle the lack of diversity in comedy, with screenings such as ‘Deeds Not Words’ that celebrated the female pioneers of silent comedy, and supporting writers such as Destiny Ekaragha who is one of only three black women to have directed a feature-length film that was given theatrical distribution in the UK, as well as Desiree Akhavan who writes from her perspective as a bisexual woman.

Destiny Ekaragha

Destiny Ekaragha

“Destiny Ekaragha won an award of ours for a film called Gone Too Far, which is about a Nigerian family who had emigrated to London and whose son, who was left behind in Nigeria, finally joins them. It was about the cultural clashes between the son who had come from Nigeria and his brother who had grown up on an East London council estate. It was brilliant and incredibly well written. But when Destiny was talking about Gone Too Far in one of our training sessions she said she hit a massive wall when her producer Christopher Granier-Deferre was going into sales or development meetings with what was a room full of white men just going, ‘I don’t get it.’ Why would they get it? It’s not for them and they’re not the primary audience. That’s why we need a more diverse body of people at every stage of the film industry. It’s not just about the person writing or directing. It’s about the person producing, the person commissioning, the person funding. You have to have them if you’re going to get these voices through.”

LOCO also features at least one foreign-language film in its programme to combat the notion that comedy is bound by differences in cultural humour.

“There’s a famously accepted perception that comedy doesn’t travel. Whereas we’ve always thought, actually when comedy deals with archetypes like sibling rivalry or love affairs or whatever it might be, it always travels because we all have those things in common with other countries. As long as it’s not super subjective in terms of the style of comedy that comes out of the country, you can actually successfully show foreign language films, which the festival has proven to be true. Some of the foreign-language films that we’ve screened have been our most successful films – not only in terms of sales but also in terms of feedback and evaluation.”

LOCO has always included short film in its programmes with the belief that shorts have a tendency to lend themselves to comedy as an exciting breeding ground for new talent, often a means of testing out ideas before a feature length.

This year’s festival will have a special focus on the short form, where they will be looking at advertising and online comedy shorts as well as film. Denise explains what they’ll be looking for in submissions...

“We’re going to be looking for it to be well made, because we don’t tolerate badly made stuff. There’s no excuse for people saying I didn’t have any budget so therefore it looks crap. With the technology we’ve got, there’s no excuse for things to look bad unless it’s a specific artistic objective.

What we’ve seen too much with shorts is where someone has gone, “me and my mates are really funny so my short is going to be me and my mates down the pub telling jokes”. You can be more ambitious and more imaginative, you can tell any story. Show me something different. That’s the great thing about going to a shorts programme – there’s an incredible wealth of ideas and landscapes to look at and that’s what we want to see.

We tend to look for films with brains, heart and courage, which is what we call our Wizard of Oz programming strategy: brains being films that have something to say in a clever way; heart being filmmakers that are passionate about the subject matter and make you care about the people that you’re watching; and courage being films that are trying to do or say something different, and with a real artistic ambition. Across every programme we want a good spread in terms of tone, look, feel, character and style.

The seventh London Comedy Film Festival kicks off from the 11th - 14th July 2019 at the BFI Southbank. For tickets and more information on how to attend screenings or training, programme visit the LOCO website here.

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