Our LIFF Behind the Scenes series brings you interviews with a wide range of people working in film exhibition in Leeds and Yorkshire, giving you the chance to get to know the individuals behind some of your favourite film organisations.

Our next interview is with Alex King, Programme Manager at Leeds International Film Festival...



Alex King's biography

I studied English at Leeds Uni then moved to Bradford where I worked a dull day job for a while and volunteered at a cinema in the evenings, Bradford Playhouse and Film Theatre. I went on to get paid work there in the box office, as front of house manager and worked for the first editions of Bradford Film Festival in the mid 90s. Eventually I started doing some freelance programming work and film journalism, working at LIFF, at first as a part time programmer in 2002, then full time, becoming Senior Programmer and Programme Manager in the years to follow.

What do you enjoy most about working in film exhibition?

There’s so much to enjoy about working in film exhibition. I love getting to see lots of new films, visiting other festivals and being part of an exciting event but actually the best thing of all is being in a team of like-minded people, all of whom are dedicated to making the best of something they genuinely care about. From that point of view, I suppose it doesn’t even relate directly to film, but when you’ve worked in places where people are not so engaged, you realise that’s something of real value.

What inspired you to become involved in film exhibition and what were your first steps? 

When I graduated from University in the early 90s, I went back home to live with my parents in a Yorkshire village and worked for a while for the family business. I was in the first flush of discovery about arthouse film and I used to drive to cinemas almost every night to see everything I could. At that time the BFI were touring amazing seasons with retrospectives of filmmakers like Bunuel and Fassbinder. I used to go often to the Bradford Film Theatre and I volunteered to help out in the coffee shop. Then I got a job in the box office and as house manager, which I did for years alongside a day job that paid the bills. Eventually I got work as a freelance programmer before joining LIFF. It was a whole decade from the first steps to a full time job.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to become involved in film exhibition now? 

Particularly if you’re interested in programming, you need to nurture a bottomless enthusiasm for film discovery and learn everything you can about a broad range of contemporary cinema and film history. Get involved in any way you can and be willing to do anything to be part of it, whether that’s by volunteering somewhere, doing a casual job in a cinema or putting on your own DIY screenings. Meeting fellow cinephiles and film workers will lead to opportunities and new possibilities but you have to be patient, persistent and flexible.

What is the main change you’ve experienced in film exhibition since you started?

Definitely the technology. Back when I started at LIFF we practically had to have an extra room to house all the piles of VHS tapes, we had a complex array of different analogue video projection technologies and of course, actual physical film prints. Strange to think how radically that’s all changed in a relatively short time. 35mm film was the dominant projection format for so long, that was what was meant by “film” and the whole infrastructure behind the scenes was built around it. Digital technology offers all sorts of advantages, not least an increase in accessibility for a wider range of films, but the transition has been challenging for the industry and I think we’re still working through that now. 

What would you like to see change in film exhibition in the future?

I think we’re currently in a transitional phase because of the influence of streaming platforms in particular and that’s only been intensified by the unprecedented COVID upheavals. Strange to say that right now, films showing in cinemas at all is a pretty big change. I hope that cinemas get the support they need to reassert their identities as the restrictions ease and that the social value of their stability is recognised. While the lockdown has been a big boon for the streaming platforms, people’s enthusiasm to get back into the outside world could be a jumpstart for the big screen. I just hope we can encourage audiences to come back to see as wide a variety of different films as possible so that different kinds of cinemas and festivals can thrive.

Do you have a favourite highlight from working in film exhibition so far?

There have been lots of highlights but if I had to pick one I’d go for the whole experience of programming the Peter Watkins retrospective way back when I started at LIFF in 2002. It was the first significant programming job I did and it was a steep learning curve. It was the perfect subject because he’s a fascinating filmmaker but an industry outsider and his films are an implicit critique of the way mainstream media works. It permanently changed the way I see film.

Is there a film you love that you wish could be seen more widely by audiences?

There are many and I always aim to programme them for LIFF. To take a couple of examples from last year’s programme, I thought Quo Vadis, Aida? was terrific. Although that has been picked up and released in the UK since November and has got some great reviews, I hope it hasn’t missed out on audiences because it didn’t get released in cinemas. Also, The Trouble with Nature definitely deserves an audience but that may not get a release over here so it probably won’t be seen that widely.

Do you have a favourite cinema-going memory as part of an audience?

When I was 19 or 20, I went down to London to see The Passion of Joan of Arc at the ICA. I think it might even have been the first time I’d gone to London on my own and it was certainly the first time I went to the ICA. I got lost and was a little late and I remember running through Trafalgar Square towards Buckingham Palace wondering if I could be in the right place. It was in a full but tiny cinema and I stumbled in the back a couple of minutes after it started with my heart racing. It was projected as a silent film without any soundtrack so all you could hear was the whir of the projector and the print was a little worn out so the image danced around a bit from one reel to another. You couldn’t forget the artifice of light and shadow projected against a wall but the emotional impact of the film was incredibly intense and it remains a very vivid cinema-going memory.

Which filmmaker’s work means the most to you?

Robert Bresson is a director whose films made a huge impression on me when I first saw them all. I was discovering all the most acclaimed filmmakers around that time but he stood out as someone with an entirely different approach to the medium who made amazingly powerful films via understated means where little gestures have deep significance. It’s some time since I watched his films intensively but I did re-watch A Man Escaped last year and I still think it’s one of the best films ever made.

Which new film have you loved recently that you would recommend to audiences?

Apart from Nomadland, which hardly needs any more recommendations, the film I’ve most enjoyed in the last month or two is called Witches of the Orient. It’s about to get a UK release after screening at Sheffield Docfest. It’s a documentary but a very unusual one about a Japanese women’s volleyball team. They were made up of a group of young factory workers who had a period of huge success in the early 60s culminating in a victory at the Tokyo Olympics. They became national icons and the film splices extraordinary archive footage together to dizzying effect including excitable reportage about their route to success, oddly compelling training footage and colourful excerpts from an anime series made about them a few years later.

Part of LIFF Behind the Scenes