Glasgow Film Festival: A look back at the last 20 years

source image, Glasgow Film Theater

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Saoirse Ronan and Gemma Arterton were guests in their film Byzantium in 2013

  • Author, pauline mclean
  • Role, BBC Scotland arts correspondent

When the Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica first opened in 1932, it was the only film festival in the world.

Today the Venice Film Festival, as the most famous, is one of more than 3,000 worldwide.

Into that crowded market came the Glasgow Film Festival in 2005.

Scotland’s fledgling industry was already well served by the Edinburgh Film Festival, which was founded along with other international arts festivals after the Second World War.

So the founders of Glasgow decided to focus on being small, local and friendly.

Their base at the Glasgow Film Theater (GFT) – previously the art deco Cosmo – rivaled older festivals and provided a cinematic legacy to local audiences passionate about international film.

They also had audiences with broad tastes, willing to try anything new, enabling early programmers to look beyond the limited mainstream releases that more established festivals had blocked out.

Without big names and glitzy premieres, it was the center of attention of the audience. They were the ones who walked the red carpet and enjoyed the fizz.

Tickets to the opening ceremony automatically included an invitation to any party after the show where filmmakers and film fans alike were welcomed.

It was immediately dubbed “one of the friendliest film festivals in the world”.

source image, Glasgow Film Theater

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Glasgow Film Theater in the 1980s

source image, Glasgow Film Theater

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The Cosmo Cinema in 1970, before becoming The Glasgow Film Theater

The first year attracted less than 5,000 people but as word spread, numbers grew. By 2013, it was closer to 40,000.

And it wasn’t just the audience who loved the smaller, more intimate festival atmosphere.

This year, the event will celebrate the 20th edition of the film festival, 50 years of the festival’s home – Glasgow Film Theater (GFT) and 85 years since the cinema was first produced.

source image, Glasgow Film Theater

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Richard Gere did not attend the Oscars for the 2016 ceremony

In 2016, Richard Gere came to the festival to present the film Time Out of Mind.

A low-key indie film about a homeless man (starring Gere) attracted a sold-out crowd, not to mention that the festival didn’t face the same level of security as the Hollywood star after being escorted from the hotel. Was taken to the cinema theatre.

The experience apparently appealed to him more than the Oscars, which have clashed with the festival’s closing weekend since it first began.

source image, Glasgow Film Theater

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Jessie Buckley promoting her film Wild Rose at the Grand Ole Opry in Glasgow in 2019

source image, Glasgow Film Theater

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Karen Gillan at the UK premiere of her directorial debut The Party’s Just Beginning

David Tennant has brought several films to the festival, including the biopic Mad to Be Normal about Scottish psychiatrist RD Laing in 2018 and the romantic comedy Me You and Him in 2019.

James Earl Jones, Alan Rickman, Bo Burnham, Karen Gillan, Jodie Whittaker, Saoirse Ronan, Kelly Macdonald and Simon Pegg all participated.

Some, like Jessie Buckley, whose film Wild Rose was shown there in 2019, have embraced the entertainment spirit, screening films at other events outside of theaters. In their case, it included a lively country and western set with line dancing at Glasgow’s Grand Ole Opry.

source image, Glasgow Film Theater

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The Thing screening on a real snow slope in 2017

source image, Glasgow Film Theater

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One of several non-cinema venues for screenings

The fun aspect also attracted the cast and crew of iconic Scottish films such as Gregory’s Girl and Small Faces, reuniting them on home turf for the anniversary screening.

The festival has expanded into other cinemas – notably Cineworld and the CCA (Centre for Contemporary Arts) – but it also takes pride in screening films in non-cinema venues, such as Jaws at the tall ship Glenlee, Indiana Jones at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery ( complete with giant boulders) and The Thing in an indoor ski slope.

Expansion into other venues has meant that the festival has been able to maintain its sense of intimacy and the excitement that comes from selling out events.

This has also helped them connect and grow their audience.

source image, Glasgow Film Theater

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John Byrne at the Slab Boys reunion screening in 2017

The FrightFest is a selection of films programmed by the organizers of the horror film festival of the same name based in Strand, London, which has been running for 19 years. It is responsible for bringing London audiences to Glasgow, many of whom became loyal to the main festival.

The rise of the Glasgow Film Festival coincides with the slow decline of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which went into administration in 2022.

The hope is that it can be revived under new director Paul Ridd and Chairman Andrew MacDonald, which the Glasgow Film Festival is keen to see happen, now that they are an established part of the calendar.

This is an uncertain area. Festivals have come and gone over the last 20 years. Shetland Festival Onscreen – established in 2006 before there was a formal cinema on the island – announced that the 2023 event would be the last.

source image, Glasgow Film Theater

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Alan Rickman at the festival in 2015

And Glasgow has its own challenges.

In 2018, the Beast from the East wreaked havoc with its show. Local support proved vital as only people living within walking distance of the cinema could get there, at least for a few days

The 2020 festival was one of the last events to be held before the COVID 19 pandemic. On closing night, I remembered an interview with the Saudi director Haifa al-Mansour, director of The Perfect Candidate, who had just arrived from the airport. As I moved to shake his hand, he extended his elbow.

The Glasgow Film Festival survived it all and tonight its loyal audience will be sitting comfortably, ready to raise a glass and leap into the unknown once again.

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