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Industry Insights: Ilona Cheshire

Ilona has worked in film distribution, exhibition and publicity, for over 20 years for companies such as Artificial Eye, Momentum and Pathé. She managed the publicity team for the NFT/BFI Southbank for over a decade, and worked on The Wolf of Wall Street and the HBO series Vinyl.

Ilona provided music supervision and unit publicity for the forthcoming Joanna Hogg film, The Souvenir.

Why do you think you are a Film Publicist and Exhibitions Consultant?

I was drawn to a role in publicity because film has been a lifelong habit and dependency! I can’t imagine my life without cinema and this is rooted in childhood, so when it came to career ambitions as a youth I knew that I had to work in film. I graduated, in film, at a time when the British film industry was suffering a very lean period and finding the right in-road was a challenge. Initially by working independently and for film festivals I realised that I enjoyed promoting films that I cared about and giving them my full creative support. Over the years I have been able to broaden my expertise and so after a spell of working in New York I came home to freelance and work on a diverse range of very interesting projects.

What’s your elevator pitch to describe the kind of films and/or filmmakers you like working with the most?

Filmmakers who bring to the screen thought-provoking and innovative approaches to their (collaborative) projects motivate me in wanting the best for them and so in turn promote, whether they are an emerging or established talent presenting a documentary or work of fiction or a practitioner of the past. Over the last year three of the most striking films that have stayed with me have been Carla Simón’s Summer of 1993, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War and Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers – each so different, but all are poignant works of beauty.

What is it about such material or teams that you find the most inspiring?

Working with people who share a similar passion and commitment to film is exciting and differences in skills and knowledge provide the opportunity to learn from each other, which brings pleasure and a positivity going forward.

If forced to give one tip to new people coming through what would it be?

Don’t feel that you have to know exactly what you want to do at the start because one’s experiences may take one on a different course. The main objectives are to enjoy the learning curve and persevere if you feel knocked back, so push yourself out of your comfort zone.

And what pitfall would you say is essential to avoid in your sector when starting out?

Not being aware of what is changing around you – the industry has developed at a seemingly accelerated pace over the last 15 years and it continues to so keep yourself informed!

Tell us about where you come from or where you live now and how it filters into your work?

I grew up by the estuary in a claustrophobic small town and knew that the films, music and art that inspired me was found in the city, so I moved to London to study, then work and build my career alongside like-minded people. London is a challenging city, but I love what it offers culturally and the work opportunities that living here has provided. My social and working lives have a huge crossover in the Venn Diagram of life and I would feel that I had less work options if I moved too far away – in addition to feeling somewhat culturally starved.

Tell us about the latest film / exhibition / book / public figure / article to have inspired you?

I have had such a glut of female-led culture in the last four weeks that this one is tricky! I began the year devouring Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, her final novel and a wondrous one of darkness always looming, strong visual descriptions that plays out in some ways like a Gothic domestic drama. Jackson died before she was 50 and had grown reclusive, but her gift for weaving tension leaves one forgetting to breathe and has influenced writers such as Sarah Waters and Neil Gaiman. It seems that so many of her famous contemporaries were male, yet she was one of a small handful of American women writing provocative stories that dealt with female and male psyches during that era. And having seen RBG I was deeply moved by the determination and resilience of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, not to mention her sense of humour. Her positive impact on gender laws in the USA has been truly ground-breaking and I urge people to view it as a testimony that political change can happen with the right application of tenacity and commitment.

What frustrates you about what you do?

That weekly release schedules are packed nowadays, yet so many great films don’t make it to distribution.

How do you overcome this?

By championing titles that I believe should be seen or sought out.

Do you believe in the ‘female gaze’ and what does that mean to you?

Yes and I’m very glad that cinema is changing to provide a platform for women filmmakers! As a child I think that I was only every exposed to films made by men, even if a woman was the protagonist, and such lack of a female perspective is not a positive for girls and young women and the characters that they are expected to identify with. I am so thankful that directors such as Campion and Bigelow have won Academy Awards and their work is internationally regarded, but it is shameful that luminaries such as Lupino, Varda or Chytilová aren’t included on that platform. I don’t believe that an Oscar is a good litmus test of the best in cinema – if it was Clio Barnard should‘ve at least had a nomination for The Selfish Giant – but awards recognition changes career trajectories and the options that arise.

Parting shot – Why are programmes like FUTURE LEADERS IN DISTRIBUTION important to you and what does gender equality in film and society mean to you?

I feel so fortunate to be a part of this BEV course and to share it with a group of expert women who are open, honest and have a wealth of knowledge to share. I’ve not had the opportunity to be involved in a scheme of this kind before and halfway through it is already having a positive impact on me and, I assume, my cohorts. I have been surprised and frustrated to know that we have all dealt with similar negative experiences – often the legacy of a proverbial ‘boy’s network’ or due to a lack of women in exec roles who are keen to nurture new female talent and ideas.

Film is a tough business, but the last two years has exposed so much that is wrong in the industry that I am very hopeful for the future. I believe that the medium is evolving into an art form where women can tell their stories – regardless of the gender associated with the genre or sexuality of the protagonists – and these works can be produced, distributed and reviewed by women whose experiences are as valued and encouraged alongside those of men. We have some great female leaders of film in the UK and it is already evident that they are also nurturers of new talent – it’s inspiring to witness.


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