The Flatpack Festival is back for an 11th year. Graham Young meets its founding father and director, Ian Francis.

Punching above your weight is a handy skill for anyone to have – but Ian Francis seems to be making a career out of it. Not only that, he’s doing his adopted city of Birmingham a massive favour at the same time.

Now in its 11th incarnation, his Flatpack Festival has become one of the cultural highlights of the West Midlands’ calendar year.

It’s a chance for people to celebrate film in large or small doses. To discover the unexpected. To be surprised. To escape from reality. To be energised and inspired to think: ‘Yes, I could do something like that’.

Flatpack’s opening day programme includes Harold Lloyd’s 1923 romantic comedy Safety Last! (Thursday, March 21, 8pm, £6).

The now 90-year-old classic film, which includes Lloyd’s clock-hanging sequence, will be screened inside the 1875 Great Western Arcade close to Snow Hill, with pianist John Sweeney accompanying. There will also be music and refreshments courtesy of the arcade’s independent stores.

Director Ian Francis says: “Part of the point of Flatpack is that people can stumble upon us and there can be a live element.

“It’s not just about sitting there in the dark.

“We’ve expanded it across more days, so that people don’t need to be as concerned about missing something if there are ten things on at once.

“And there will be more of a city centre focus in the Colmore Business District, enabling us to get more into the faces of shoppers and commuters.”

As its name so inspiringly suggests, Flatpack exists as itself. But users can also take some or all of its components to create and build something for themselves.

From March 21-31, this year’s festival will have more than 100 major events to seek out. Many are free – or surprisingly affordable.

In the 200th anniversary year of the birth of Alexander Parkes, the city-born man who invented plastic and paved the way for the perfection of celluloid, they include everything from celebrating the creative juices of the 1970s’ Arts Lab generation to screening hundreds of short films.

There will be the chance to see rare TV and cinema archives, and parties and screenings in unusual places, with walking tours and live scores adding extra layers of knowledge and atmosphere.

When Flatpack began it had some 30 events in three days and needed £15,000 to fund.

The main festival now runs for 11 days, with more arriving throughout the year under the banner “Flatpack is for life, not just for March”.

Today, the budget is still not much more than £100,000, with roughly half of the money from public funding – the rest from a mixture of sources, including box office, bars, and crowd-sourcing.

That’s astonishing value for something on this scale and which invariably draws such positive comments about Birmingham from otherwise often unfairly negative national critics.

“The media is still incredibly ‘metrocentric’,” says Ian. “It’s easier to get positive praise about Birmingham now, but there’s still an element of surprise that it’s such a nice place to live.

“Flatpack punches above its weight. There’s no other festival quite like it because there are so many different facets to it.

“I think we over-achieve with the money we have got.

“If you took all the arts funding away it would impoverish the community. Flatpack generates a lot more revenue than it costs.

“Whatever people are interested in, there’s a good chance they will find something to get excited about in the programme.”

It takes a 40-page tabloid to detail exactly what’s on, yet Shropshire-born Ian says it’s the production of the newspaper which is more difficult than putting on the festival itself. Welcome to my world!

The credits on Page 3 list seven “supporter” logos, including Creative England, BFI and Marketing Birmingham, as well as 30 “partners”, including the Birmingham Museum And Art Gallery, the Electric Cinema and MAC Birmingham.

The festival’s spiritual home is in the Custard Factory in Digbeth, an industrial monolith with a warren of passages.

Flatpack’s offices overlook the Victorian arches of a nearby railway line.

Or they would, if it wasn’t quite so misty on such an unforgivably cold March day.

“The view here can be truly spectacular at sunset,” says Ian, asking me to take his word for it.

The office includes space for half a dozen other people, including cheerful marketing coordinator Annabel Clarke, all typing away on laptops.

The concentration of silence is a world away from how you would have imagined the Custard Factory to have been in its heyday.

Square-spaced shelving holds lots of accountancy files, beneath the Perspex-style, coloured lettering of Ian’s other venture, 7 Inch Cinema, founded almost ten years ago in June 2003 but now being “receded” into the background behind Flatpack.

There’s also a framed poster of the original Flatpack Festival – quite a collector’s item now.

Ian’s journey began with a film and literature degree at the University Of Warwick. Then 15 years ago he joined the then Birmingham International Film & Television Festival in the days when it was led by Roger Shannon, now a professor at Edge Hill University, but still based in Moseley.

“That festival needed the right kind of venue to make it work, like an Odeon cinema,” says Ian, a softly-spoken, gentle man with a studious persona.

“With us, there’s a lot of free stuff that people can try in shops, bars and cafes.

“If we can give people a taste, they might want more and pursue some of the most tucked away venues.”

Each year, Flatpack has a “patron saint” or a body of work that it emphasises. This year it’s the Arts Lab, which rose from lowly beginnings in a former youth club on Tower Street in Newtown in 1970 to become West Midlands Arts’ biggest client by the end of the decade.

Its former programmer, Pete Walsh, who went on to the Triangle Cinema and then became director of cinemas at the Irish Film Festival for 18 years, died in December, aged 62.

“I’ve had an ambition for years to do something about Arts Lab and when I heard Pete Walsh was ill, it seemed the time was right to doff our cap to him,” says Ian.

“Another principal on the film side, Tony Jones, went on to set up City Screen, the UK’s biggest chain of arthouse cinemas; Stuart Rogers ended up running Birmingham Rep.

“The Arts Lab posters were famous and those involved pretty much did everything themselves, building their own workshop and making some amazing silk screen posters.”

Flatpack 2013 will even include an attempt to recreate Arts Lab’s example by building an auditorium from pallets.

How big would Ian like Flatpack to become? Does he have international ambitions?

“We’d like to grow that side of things if we can grow the programming budget,” he says. “I’d like to be able to pay people instead of relying on so many volunteers. We need more opportunities for them to get paid work.

“What we don’t want to do is become an enormous juggernaut with massive numbers on the payroll.

“So we’ll grow at a steady rate and see where it takes us. To get online, you don’t need a massive budget any more – you don’t need to pay PR companies and have glossy brochures. We have a two-way conversation with our audience which we do all the time.

“We like our programme to be in a newspaper format, something people can pick up and stick in their bag.

“It’s a lot easier to see what’s on when you have a paper in your hands. I don’t think that’s a Luddite attitude or that we’re about to see the death of the printed press.”

So there we are. I went along to meet Ian to talk about film and came away uplifted about the power of the printed media to promote it.

But that’s Flatpack’s “something for everyone” mantra in a nutshell. It reaches the parts other festivals don’t even think of.

Simply unpack it, see what’s inside and enjoy.

* Tickets from www.flatpackfestival.org.uk , www.theticketsellers.co.uk  or 0844870 0000, or in person at The TicketSellers Shop, 594 Bitsol Road, Birmingham B29 6BQ, or on the door at most venues, some of which will be cash only.

Ian’s Top Ten Tips

1. The Passion of Joan of Arc – Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film will be screened at Birmingham Cathedral, from 6.30pm on Saturday, March 23 (6.30pm, £8/£6). With live accompaniment from pianist Paul Shallcross.

2. One Mile Away – Penny Woolcock’s new documentary about rival gangs trying to learn to trust each other in Birmingham. Odeon Broadway Plaza, Tuesday, March 26, 6.30pm (£7/£5).

3. Spring Breakers – Harmony Korine directs Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and James Franco in a story about four restless college girls. Odeon Broadway Plaza, Monday, March 25, 6.30pm (£7/ £5).

4. Film Bug – based at 21 Colmore Row, the mini film festival in its own right includes shorts and feature film screenings, talks and walking tours based in and around the Colmore Business District. 

5. Colour Box – screenings and events at MAC from Friday, March 29, to Sunday, 31, with hand-drawn animation, green screen and sound effects workshops.

6. The Adventures of Prince Achmed – a ‘rediscovery’ screening of Lotte Reinger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), showing at the University of Birmingham’s new Bramall Music Building (Sunday, March 24, £12 / £9).

7. Celluloid Nights – in the year that digital will finally take over, this is a four-hour celebration of celluloid at Thinktank from 7-11pm on Wednesday, March 27 (£5). Includes a chance to see your own scratch/stencil/pain on screen via Unravel, a hit at Flatpack 2011.

8. Cyclomania is a day of free screenings, activities and entertainments in the Custard Factory from 11am on Saturday, March 30. There will also be a screening of Stephen Auerbach’s revered documentary Bicycle Dreams (Custard Factory Theatre, 2.30pm, £7/£5).

9. The Lebanese Rocket Society – UK premiere of Joana Hadjithomas’s 2012 documentary showing how the science department of an ArmenianUniversity in Beirut started building small missiles propelled by home-brewed ‘rocket fuel’, just to see how far they could launch them. With aguest visit from Joana, it’s showing at MAC Birmingham from 5.45pm on Friday, March 29(£7/ £5).

10. 3D Party – The Mask 3D (aka Eyes of Hell, 1961) – a screening of Julian Roffman’s 1961 Canadian film in the Custard Factory Theatre from 8pm on Saturday, March 30 (£5). Another 3D feature is John Brahm’s 1954 movie The Mad Magician, which attempted to cash in on the previous year’s House Of Wax. Showing at The Electric (£7/£5 + £1.50 glasses) from 11pm on Friday, March 29. Pioneering Cold War examples of ‘Soviet Animation in 3D’ will play at the The Electric from 3.30pm on Saturday, March 30 (£7 / £5 + £1.50 glasses).