Founder Focus: A Drive Towards Filmmaking Diversity

Founder Focus: A Drive Towards Filmmaking Diversity

“The founder focus series is about putting the spotlight on founders who have built their business with real purpose, and are driving positive change.

This month I spoke to Lisa-Marie Tonelli founder of The North East International Film Festival.

Here Lisa-Marie shares her story of how the covid-19 pandemic motivated her to build a festival that would support the local region and its creative professionals.”

During the Summer of 2020, at the height of a pandemic and whilst on maternity leave with my son, I first established what was soon to be my career passion and my professional purpose, the North East International Film Festival, whose inaugural event is to be held from 19th -21st November 2021 in and around Newcastle Upon Tyne.

As a Freelance Independent Film Producer that had my own projects currently on the International Film Festival circuit, part of my role was discerning which of the many competitive festivals my work would be best suited to and to identify which categories would be most applicable for submission.

One evening whilst scouring through the list of various International festivals on FilmFreeway to submit my recently produced short film to, three things suddenly occurred to me. The first thing that struck me was that Newcastle, the city I live in, appeared to be one of the only major UK cities that did not currently hold an annual international film festival event. This presented to me a massive gap in the market and with it, a fantastic opportunity.

The second thing was that these festivals, appeared to me, to be a bit too genre specific. There was a real scarcity of all-encompassing film festivals where you could not only submit a horror film but an LQBTQ+ film for example. There are, of course, the odd niche festivals that cater to specific groups, but an overall lack of festivals that represent the all-inclusive society we all hope to achieve.

The third thing I noticed regarding existing festivals was that they also appeared to be somewhat lacking in community and regional spirit, with very few local collaborations. There are certain places in the UK where, I believe, the people have a real passion and pride for their area and the wish to promote and showcase it. The North East is most certainly one of these regions.

This was the moment I made the decision to start my very own International Film Festival in the North East of England.

A core of diversity and collaboration...

When planning the NEIFF it was incredibly important to me to put together a diverse, collaborative and inclusive event and to include as wide a range of submission categories as possible as well as the standard categories. These include more diverse categories aimed at groups or communities that may have been previously under-represented in the industry, such as our Visible category which represents disability in all its forms, plus many more.

The festival is to consist of independent film screenings of both feature and short films, Special screenings of award-winning films with cast and crew Q&A’s, satellite screenings, Industry networking events, free, educational workshops and masterclasses which will be accessible to all and a Closing Awards Ceremony which is where we shall celebrate our NEIFF award winners and their work with an evening of dinner, drinks, entertainment, awards presentation and special guests.

My main aims and objectives in founding this festival were to allow our audiences the opportunity to view new and diverse work they would not otherwise have access to, to increase on screen representation of previously under-represented groups and communities, to encourage and promote the work of independent filmmakers.

Celebrating the region and independent filmmakers...

Independent films are made entirely differently to the Hollywood blockbusters you see from the big Production Companies. Filmmakers pour their heart, soul and quite often their entire savings, into creating something they believe needs to be seen.

This is why it is important to the NEIFF to celebrate and honour that work with screenings, awards and the option of online distribution.  It is my intention to bring industry and tourism to the area and shine a light on all of the wonderful things, places and talent the North East has to offer, hopefully generating regional profit and creating jobs and opportunity in the film industry here in the process.

My passion for my region has prompted me to form collaborations and partnerships with Local Community and Charity Organisations, Independent Businesses, Schools and Universities, Local Government, Heritage and Tourism Organisations. 

The future vision...

The ultimate vision for NEIFF in the near future is to become a core event in the region, to create one-off events that are free to the public with our partners throughout the year, aside from our annual event and to very quickly establish ourselves as a BAFTA qualifying festival. My ideal vision would be to increase the number of festival days by 5 times, to enable us to include more screenings and events and to be one of the top go-to international festivals for film premieres.

At NEIFF our goal is to foster diversity, equity, inclusion and safety amongst not only our filmmakers and audience but also our leadership team. We wish to take the lead and set an example for existing and future film festivals. Our mission is to challenge current film exhibition criteria and protocols to ensure accessibility for all.

Setting a standard...

The NEIFF has already made some giant steps towards achieving our ultimate goals. It is one of around 80 festivals worldwide to adopt the F-Rating, representing females in film, we are the first EVER film festival to sign up to the BBC 50/50 Equality Project, making that organisational commitment to diversity and the first EVER festival to be awarded the Raising Films Ribbon for our efforts in creating an inclusive and adaptable space for not only our filmmakers and audience, but also for our team.

We have also taken the decision to include short films in our programme as short films are generally produced by individuals who wish to showcase their talent and with the intention of gaining publicity and therefore sponsorship or funding in order to create a feature. Most people begin this way. This means that screening shorts ensures the future of feature filmmaking. This could also benefit individuals with disabilities or neurodivergent who may be more comfortable watching something in smaller segments and not sitting for prolonged periods.

The NEIFF Team is comprised of volunteers from all walks of life and we very much live the organisational ethos in our daily working lives. I created this festival to be all inclusive, a place where everyone is represented, every voice is heard and all opinions matter and this is exactly the approach taken in the NEIFF team.


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    About The Author

    Lizzie Benton is a people and culture specialist who supports organisations in developing a unique company culture and building engaged teams. Lizzie has been recognised as a millennial changing the world of work, and has been featured in the Metro, HuffingtonPost and has spoken across the UK on employee engagement. When not consulting or running a workshop, Lizzie can be found in rural Lincolnshire enjoying afternoon tea and fresh air.