Interview: Joey Leung, Terracotta Film Festival

Terracotta Film Festival organiser and owner of UK specialist label Terracotta Distribution Joey Leung kindly agreed to an interview with the founder of CUEAFS Spencer Murphy. Here’s what was shared between the frenzy of screenings and after parties.

Spencer Murphy: This is Terracotta Film Festival’s second year. How is it going this year in comparison to the last? Are you happy?

Joey Leung: Yes, definitely. It’s grown a lot bigger than last year and has attracted a bigger audience. Because of the success of the first year, when it comes to sourcing films I think people are gaining confidence in us that we can reach their audience and they’re giving us and trusting us with big films like Accident (2009), Bodyguards and Assassins (2009) and Little Big Soldier (2010).

SM: That’s quite different than the program from last year. You’ve got some massive films from Asia – Bodyguards and Assassins, the Johnnie To films etc. Was that a conscious decision? Is this the direction you want the festival to take?

JL: No, not really. Like people said, it has gone quite commercial this year as opposed to uncovering gems like last year. I think it’s rather a representation of what we’ve seen and had time to see. We went to different festivals this year, whereas last year we got a lot more screenings in from smaller companies and smaller production houses. So I think this was just a matter of picking the 15 best films and this was our short list. It’s not a specific move to make the festival more commercial.

SM: The screenings are accompanied by Q&A sessions. Are you happy with the way they’ve gone?

JL: Oh, yes. I get really nervous when I’m on stage. (laughs) But the feedback from the crowd is quite positive and I think they really enjoy the Q&As and the topics took to their liking. But that’s the whole point, isn’t it? If you want to come and watch a film and spend an afternoon in the cinema and then sit afterwards through a talk with the producer or director, then it’s got to be appealing to you. And I think everyone thought it was quite enjoyable.

SM: The program is quite heavily leaning towards Hong Kong cinema this year. There’s only one Korean film for example. Again, was this just a case of the films you got to see or was it deliberate?

JL: We went to a film festival in October last year and we ended up programming eight Korean films in our festival, so we thought: “No, that’s too biased to Korean cinema” and we started editing it down and adding others. But looking at the schedule a couple of weeks before we were going to announce it I thought: “Oh, no, we haven’t got any Korean films at all” (laughs). You’ve got to remember Europe now has got a lot of Asian Festivals and we want to show our own unique blend of programming. Because we noticed it so late (other films were promised to other festivals) it turned out to be a matter of timing.
SM: One thing that strikes me is the kind of Thai films you’ve prepared this year, for example: Meat Grinder (2009). There seems to be an emergence of Thai horror. What are your thoughts on this?

JL: It’s kind of moving away from the slap-stick local humour Thai comedy that you usually get and moving more into film making for western sensibilities but still retaining the Thai culture.

SM: Your program features very different genres and types of films. When it comes to picking out films, is it a matter of whether you personally like them?

JL: Yes, definitely. I’m not much of a film buff. A lot of people who do festival programs are film critics and experts, considering things like mise-en-scene, which is a very foreign term to me (laughs). But I personally am into Hollywood films so when I watch a film like Cow (2009) and I enjoy it, I reckon that every Brit will also enjoy it and that’s when I decide to include it in the festival.

SM: Joey, you recently came back from Hong Kong, where you met Johnnie To. What are your thoughts in general on his films and the status of Hong Kong cinema, because I know that you haven’t released any Hong Kong films? Is this something you’re looking to move towards?

JL: Yes, definitely. One film, Sparrow (2008), which is Johnnie To’s, won the Audience Film Award last year and we’re thinking of releasing it but I think it’s a matter of economics. It’s one thing having a good film and it’s another thing trying not to lose too much money and trying to balance those two. And the economics are quite right for Sparrow at the moment. To elaborate on this: When you pick up a film to distribute in the UK you have to pay a certain upfront fee, you’ve got to spend money on your marketing – to make the people aware there is a film and it’s out, then you have to deal with authoring and certification, which also cost a lot of money and all that cost can sometimes totally outweigh the number of units that could possibly sell, which is a shame. But hopefully more digital distribution like iTunes for example, will bring more revenue strings and make it more viable for distributors to push smaller films.

SM: Let’s consider one of the films you distributed last year – Breathless (2009). It got a lot of positive reviews, the students who saw it at the society screening loved it, and it was Sight and Sound’s film of the year. Does this type of popularity translate into sales?

JL: Not really. It’s put us on the map in terms of filmmakers, sales agents, and film lovers like you, but not so much in terms of money.

SM: What type of films would you like to distribute – the more mainstream type like Bodyguards and Assassins or those for the more “art-house” crowd like Breathless? Is it difficult to find that identity for the label itself?

JL: What we’re trying to do is release a mixture of films. We’ve released both Breathless and things like The Fox Family (2006), which is a very mainstream film. I think the approach for distributors is to make a portfolio.

SM: Would you release a film like Bodyguards and Assassins?

JL: Yes, definitely, I’d love to. If we had the capacity to handle the marketing with more staff and etc. (laughs)

SM: So what is the future for Terracotta and the Film Festival?

JL: Well, I’d like to keep doing the same and keep programming the same number of films, fifteen, and keep as personal feel of the festival as possible. I’d also like to distribute more quality films of course.

Elena Rapondzhieva (CUEAFS)