Bristol Film Festival 2024

We speak to Bristol Film Festival director Owen Franklin about how showing films in unexpected places can transform the way we see our city, what people can expect from the upcoming Clifton Summer Screenings, and why there’s no room for snobbery when it comes to movie choices

It’s another golden year for the silver screen, as Bristol Film Festival returns to Clifton’s Mall Gardens for a bumper weekend of classic movies hosted in a gorgeous set-up that’s redefining outdoor cinema as we know it. The festival may be celebrating its ninth year of operation – the first weekend of events took place in March 2016 but planning began very early the year before – yet though cinema has changed a lot during this time, it remains faithful to its original mission.

“At the very core, we’ve kept the key theme that really struck a chord from year one, which was to show classic films on the big screen, but doing so in iconic Bristol landmarks, locations and venues, providing a unique experience,” explains Owen Franklin, director of Bristol Film Festival (pictured, right). “For example, when we screened Master and Commander and Titanic on board the SS Great Britain. It’s a great way for people to revisit these spaces and experience them in a different manner.

“A couple of years ago, we also hosted 350 people underneath Concorde at Aerospace Bristol watching Airplane!. Pretty much everyone there knew the film inside out and can quote lines off by heart, yet they still came to watch it. There’s something so infectious about that many people in an amazing space laughing so hard you could barely hear the film in places. The sheer energy you get from a screening like that is superb.”

Franklin also mentions a fan favourite, which is screening horror film The Descent in Redcliffe Caves at the end of the festival’s Halloween series. Watching a terrifying flick that’s set in a cave system while sitting in caves is “about as immersive as a film can get”. No wonder it’s always the first event to sell out each year.

Summer lovin’

Though its core values have stayed the same, the event has grown – with seasonal series stretching across the year and a special weekend-long programme of Clifton Summer Screenings taking up residence in the stunning setting of the Mall Gardens from 4-7 July. After a successful inaugural event last year, Franklin has expanded the offering across an extra day, introducing another screen hosting a range of talks, short films, cult movies and Vintage Screenings (combining a film and wine tasting).
“Clifton Summer Screenings was our first venture into the world of outdoor cinema,” Franklin says. “There are of course other travelling outdoor cinemas, so we wanted to do something different.”

There are a few stand-out elements guests can expect this year, the first – and possibly most important – is the covered seating within a beautiful marquee that in the sun can have its sides pulled back so you’re surrounded with luscious foliage, and on damper days can be secured shut to keep everyone dry and cosy inside. “Straight away you’re eliminating one of the biggest risks to attending outdoor cinema events in this country.”

“We also provide headphones,” continues Franklin. “No matter where you’re sitting, you’re completely immersed with no background noise to distract you or people talking. This really helps people glue themselves to film. We’ve got Dirty Dancing and Mama Mia showing this year, and it’s a really fun way to watch a popular musical. We can tell where people are in the film due to the audience’s reaction. Last year, we had 180 people burst into song, singing I’ve Had the Time of My Life in their own little world wearing headphones, not totally realising they were surrounded by people also singing. You feel the energy with the whole audience coming together, that’s what it’s all about.”

And what good is a trip to the cinema without snacks? “We’ve teamed up with The Ivy Clifton Brasserie, who will be running a full bar and hosting a VIP hospitality venue. Luxury picnic hampers can be pre-ordered thanks to The Mall Deli, who will also be serving snacks and confectionary on the day as well. We’re working with Lyme Bay Winery – a Devon-based producer who will be providing free tasting samples. We also have a few wine pairing screenings with Averys Wine Merchants – like Roman Holiday with Italian wines.”

Do a double take

The films in both the main cinema (which seats 220 on a mix of deck chairs and tiered options) and ‘screen2’ (that seats 80 guests) are shown on state-of-the-art LED screens, which helps maintain quality resolution from day to night. Guests can expect a mix of the usual feel-good classics, with family-friendly flicks earlier in the day and a family-friendly matinee, as well as more niche specialist films and some cult horrors in the evening including The Wicker Man and Friday the 13th.

“Having a second screen has given us the chance to expand programming to something outside of the just classic feature films,” says Franklin. “It’s really exciting and nice to find a space and run two separate programmes on the same site across the long weekend.
“Bristol Archives, for example, has helped provide footage from Blitz on Bristol – a documentary made several decades ago interviewing people who lived through it using footage from the 40s, and it rarely gets shown.

“Moving away from just doing the great Hollywood hits, we’ve also got films made in Bristol in the programme too, like Starter for 10, and Golden Years. There are other films with tangential links to Bristol, which is still a quiet appreciation of the city itself. For example, we’re showing the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, linking that into the fact that not many people know that Gene Wilder was trained at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School down the road.”

Culture club

Films are a precious cultural commodity – and with recent news of local cinemas closing it feels more important than ever to celebrate cinema and the joy gained from a communal viewing experience. Even if you’re not a huge film buff – the garden’s setting and added value of luxurious refreshments should entice and entertain the whole family. Franklin is proud of the broad range of films in the festival’s wider programming.

“I hate snobbery around films. Films should be what you enjoy. There is so much room for all types of film: we’ve screened a late 80s French cinéma du look film, then a week later the original Twilight. Film can move and educate, but it’s also there for entertainment as well and there’s nothing wrong with that. Film as a medium does not need to be elitist – and that’s very much the feel of our summer screenings. It’s nice to show people cult films that they don’t expect to see on the big screen again.”

Franklin notes that people are still feeling the aftershocks of the pandemic – spending time and having fun outside the home with loved ones with shared experiences is so important, perhaps even more so than owning too many items. People are seeking something different – new and exciting yet comforting too.

“This is why people return to the classics and come back to see films they know and love on the big screen, because they already have that affinity with them. There’s a nostalgic factor to what we do – if you’ve never seen a classic film this is a great way to come and experience it on the big screen rather than streaming it at home.”

Bristol Film Festival’s Clifton Summer Screenings take place in the Mall Gardens 4-7 July. For more info and to book, visit