Smart. Trendy. Cool. These are not words immediately associated with science fiction fans in the minds of the general public. And yet, sitting in the bar of the Curzon Soho cinema, watching Sci-Fi London, the London Science Fiction Film Festival, flow around me, one can’t help noticing that a fair proportion of these people look like they might have had these words used about them in casual conversation.

Except for the dweeb in the Red Dwarf tee-shirt. And me. Obviously.

Partly this has something to do with the location. The Curzon Soho is one of the cooler cinemas in London, from the café in the foyer serving freshly cooked crêpes to the trendy bar area and the concessions stall that pushes the packets of Revels to one side and presents you with the entire range of Green and Blacks organic chocolate and ice cream. Tasty!.

But it is also true that this isn’t your average sf convention crowd. That will be why the festival website goes to some lengths to persuade readers that this is a non-geeky event. I asked Sci-Fi London founder and organiser, Louis Savy, why he thought it was important to create a distance between the film festival and traditional fandom.

“We say non-geeky because we want to keep a fresh audience coming and to keep sponsors aware that ‘real’ people come too. They need to be reminded that they could sponsor a film festival.”

He’s laughing, but I wonder, does that mean that they’d seek to discourage or even exclude input from traditional fans? “I hope not… fans of sci-fi movies, geeks or not will come to see the movies – they are smart enough to not be offended I think. The ‘Hoxton fins’ who are not sure about attending a sci-fi event can be reassured they won’t need to do a Vulcan salute.”

The festival does, however, have some corners where geeks can find solace. The “No Fear of Fandom” section featured two hours of fan films – including the funny Run Leia Run”(an inspired mix of Lucas and Tykwer in Flash animation), a Lego version of how Darth Vader first met everyone’s favourite bounty hunter, and “Roddenberry on Patrol” a short revealing the true sources of Gene Roddenberry’s inspirations for Star Trek. All fandom’s favourites live long and prosper here.

So, is the “non-geeky” tag intended for film industry consumption? Has he encountered resistance to the creation of a “science fiction” film festival in this country? “Yes, yes and yes. It amazes me. As a genre SF is probably the biggest money earner for the studios. Most of the inward investment in films is in the big title horror/fantasy/sci-fi titles and our TV screens are full of series that seem more popular than ever. Yet try to get a marketeer to see this or the ‘film’ organisations. They see us as a convention I think, expecting guys in rubber suits to turn up… whilst I have no problem with that, we are first and foremost a film festival… oh well, early days!”

That attitude isn’t only in the film industry. Waiting for entry into one of the festival films, I was earwigging on the conversation between two of the young women acting as runners, stewards and general dog’s bodies for the event. “Of course I’m not really into science fiction,” said the first. “Oh, neither am I,” the second eagerly agreed. “I want to work in the film industry.”

So, it is still early days, this is just the third year of the event, but why would you want to start a science fiction film festival?

“Two reasons really. Firstly, I wanted to see some rare and unusual movies at the cinema instead of DVD. I looked about for a film festival showing sci-fi and there wasn’t one, not a dedicated one. So the idea to start one came. Then over dinner with friends one night, a female colleague said she didn’t like sci-fi. I argued that that was like saying one doesn’t like jazz. It is something that influences so much that one cannot dismiss a whole genre because you don’t like Star Trek… or the Dixie Stompers.” I don’t know, the Dixie Stompers seem as good a reason as any to dismiss anything, but what happened then? “I wanted to impress the girl and as she did PR – I challenged her. I start the festival, you PR it – getting to an audience who wouldn’t otherwise consider sci-fi movies. I think she did a good job! …and I got the girl!”

See, life can be just like the movies!

So, three years on and Sci-Fi London is beginning to plant itself firmly in the calendar as a significant event. How does he feel the festival is developing?

“It felt more like a festival this year. Many more filmmakers and directors attended and we had some serious approaches from larger film companies. We will always look for rare and classic movies – I love to see new rich, fresh content and we need to be taken seriously as a film festival for that, not a convention. I hope this year seemed more mature to those who attended.”

While there isn’t anything on the same scale in this country, Europe already has a major sf and fantasy film festival, Spain’s Sitges, though that presents itself as much as an industry gathering as a fan festival. Which way would Louis like to see Sci-Fi London develop?

“Both. I think that there is a place for both types of screening and audience, after all isn’t the industry trying to find/sell movies to create a fan audience? Why can’t they co-exist at a film festival?”

And, I suggest, if Britain had a festival of that type it might encourage more home-grown science fiction and fantasy films. Was he disappointed that the festival didn’t have one new British feature to show this year? “I do think there is a lack of Brit sci-fi, Ray Brady seems to be pioneering with Team 1 and the Film Council did announce three movies about two years ago… though I am not sure what happened to them.”

I mention that I’d hoped for a chance to see Mike Winterbottom’s Code 46, which has done the festival circuit in Europe and America but still hasn’t been released in the UK. “I was hoping to get it too… Ask the BBC why they never returned any calls, or even acknowledged us as a festival. I am continually surprised by the film industry. They make films then sit on them, afraid that one screening to 300 people in the Curzon Soho will ruin their future business I guess… perhaps by Sci-Fi London 12 we will be approached a bit more often.”

Still, despite the absentees, this year’s festival had an entertaining line-up with a number of British premieres, including Korean duo Natural City and 2009: Lost Memories, Tamala 2010 from Japan and a slice of French weirdness – Luminal. But it was Robot Stories (reviewed with Natural City and Luminal on pages 20-21) from American writer/director/actor Greg Pak that won the festival’s award for best film. What did he think set it apart from the other films in the festival? “It was great to see a movie that had stories to tell and didn’t rely on special effects, and violent set pieces. Despite flaws, Robot Stories stood out as being a real sci-fi film, dealing with human issues in an intelligent way. An excellent first feature for Greg Pak too.”

There’s a lot going on at Sci-Fi London. I spent a happy hour listening to the producer and writer of the proposed Blake’s 7 re-launch discuss their plans, hopes and ambitions. There was the Douglas Adams Memorial Debate, which this year talked about the links between sex and technology, and which managed to be thought provoking, entertaining and funny in the way that the author himself was. There was beer and chat. And, if all else failed, there were loads of great films, both old and new.

Highlights among the older films this year included Klaus Kinski’s eccentric Android, Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, and a schools’ only (jammy kids) 35mm screening of Forbidden Planet.

For the adventurous, young or single there are the all-nighters – this year’s festival had three all-night programmes – with stocks of Red Bull, Ben and Jerry’s and a breakfast of jam donuts from Greggs for those who made it through the all the films.

So, all in all, Sci-Fi London 3 was a great success but, I asked Louis, where next for Sci-Fi London? “Bigger, better, less technical issues, more movies… and perhaps a tie-in with the literary world of SF. I still do not want to become a convention – these are run already in the UK and very well. But I would like to see us as a calendar item for anyone serious about sci-fi and sf film.”

Sci-Fi London 3 was entertaining and fun, I’m already looking forward to next year.

(Originally published in Matrix 168, July/August 2004)

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