When working as a filmmaker, one of the biggest difficulties can be connecting with commissioners with the power to hire you for bigger gigs. Inspired by her time working in the music video industry, Caroline Bottomley started the Shiny Awards, a platform for championing new talent and putting their work in front of decision-makers. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, she reinvented the platform — relying before on physical screenings and panels — as an online monthly awards show, focusing on both signed and unsigned talent. Naturally, there has been plenty of crossover between the Shiny Awards and Directors Notes over the years (MarBelle had the honour of sitting on the awards jury in 2019), with esteemed alumni such as Phillip Youmans, Temple Cache, Adrian Vieni, David Findlay, and Shan Phearon and many others having content on both platforms! We caught up with Caroline for a long overdue discussion about her experiences championing diverse talent, the pivot to digital events, and the importance of feedback.
Tell me a bit about your background and why you decided to start Shiny Awards?
I’ve done a lot of things because I’m quite old! The first thing was working at a nightclub/arts centre that I ended up running and putting on club nights at. That was up in Sheffield with a 1500 capacity venue. I really loved being a promoter. Then I started working in TV on the production side in factual entertainment and documentaries. More recently I set up a marketplace for music video commissions called Radar. That was in 2007, just after YouTube started. I ran that for ten years because I had big dreams for Radar and it didn’t become quite what I wanted. I sold it and set up Shiny which was a better representation of what I wanted to do in the first place, which is promoting, finding new talent, taking it to people who care about that and saying: “Look at these amazing new directors!”
The brilliance is not my brilliance. It’s other people’s brilliance.
Is there a lot of similarity between promoting for club nights and promoting people in the film industry?
It feels the same because the brilliance is not my brilliance. It’s other people’s brilliance. I get a kick out of being able to get the word out about really amazing people. Maybe it’s the same with you.
I think for me, instead of creating films, being able to write about so many of them means you get to experience much more!
Yes, the range is infinite isn’t it? It’s how many hours you’ve got in the day.
Is it important that Shiny, like DN, has a diversity of content?
Yes. Radar was just music videos. Shiny is absolutely anything under five minutes. It can be spec work, experimental poetry, whatever. There’s a guy called Curtis Essel who won one of our first awards with one of the first videos he made, ALLUMUAH, and it’s just won the experimental BlackStar film award at Vimeo. I don’t know much about him except that he’s not come out of the film world, he’s Black and he’s shy. So we do try and work with people who aren’t represented particularly well.
Has diversity always been a guiding principle?
It’s always been there, but I didn’t make that much of a fuss about it before because the intention has always been about levelling access to playing fields. That was the point of Radar too, as I was struck by what a closed world it was in the music video industry. In the UK it was if you went to one of six art colleges that was pretty much the only way you’d get to be a music video director. When everything was beginning to open up with cheaper equipment, YouTube and Vimeo, Radar was there to make it as easy to access a commission from Southampton as it was in L.A. Now Shiny manages to reach and support people to help change the stats a bit.
The intention has always been about levelling access to playing fields.
Can you tell us the thinking behind the extensive resources page and its front and centre positioning on the Shiny website?
There are so many groups and networks set up to help various under-represented groups in film it makes sense to signpost them. Whenever we come across a new activist group or if we’re asked, we add more. Shiny (and Radar before it) is rooted in opening up access to the playing field. It’s becoming more and more clear how urgent it is to address under-representation in media and thanks to the millions of discussions about it, turbo-charged with Black Lives Matter, many more people are making it a priority. We’re one of the few festivals/awards to apply a diversity filter to our shortlist creation — Vimeo are the only other people I’ve seen do this. We’re about to set up a D&I advisory group; there’s loads more we could be doing.
Would you characterise the site as a film festival of sorts?
Yes, but for the moment I’m focused on it being awards that are live-streamed.
What are the challenges of getting so many decision-makers in the industry together each month? I’d imagine they’re very busy.
They are up for it. I think the thing they appreciate is that it can forward more diverse talent to them. Often the people who are more confident and able to make their own connections — middle-class, white people — are getting to hear from them. People like to support Shiny so that’s good. They like what we’re about.
By running these panels and awards, you can demystify the industry a little bit as filmmakers get to hear from the commissioners directly.
Yeah. I’m trying to get those two ends of the chain really close together. Commissioners can find talent and talent can find commissioners in a friendly, non-mysterious way.
How’s the transitioning from in-person to online events been? Did you have any experience beforehand?
No experience beforehand. It was really scary and then really easy. I’m in the middle of changing platforms from Zoom to something called Hop In. It’s a bit more complicated to work out but it’s more like a real life conference; you can run a stage while running panel sessions and 1-1 networking at the same time. If you want it can be a week-long event, but I’ll just keep it to an hour-long screening with some panels on around it. It feels like it did back in the beginning when I was figuring out how to work Zoom and thinking “Gosh, I’ll never get my head around it.” It’s a whole new skill set to get your head around running things online.
There’s also the difficulty of simply hosting an online event. It can feel a little unnatural, which is no one’s fault at the end of the day, just the nature of the platform.
Yes, but there’s something a bit reassuring about the fact that most people have children wandering around in the background.
One of the most important things for any creative profession is feedback, especially when you don’t get selected. Do you have feedback for every submission?
Yes. That was kind of the first thing with Shiny where I was like: “We’ve got a bit of a USP here.” I can’t get the industry to pay me because it’s a new business, but I’ll get them to support me through doing reviews. I was also very aware that if I am going to have to charge directors as part of the business model, I didn’t want anyone to feel ripped off. I wanted everyone to have something, so everyone who puts a video submission in gets written feedback from three companies.
It’s great as a lot of people submit to film festivals and wonder if they are just spending money to hear nothing. Money can be tight too, so to have feedback is a good outcome regardless.
Exactly. You offer that as well, so even when people have a made a film that nobody really likes, at least someone has given them some thoughtful pointers as to how they could make it a bit more engaging next time around. Most people are very happy about that.
What advice would you give to someone submitting their films to an online website or film festival?
I think it’s best to do it within the context of a bigger plan. You can be entering for all sorts of reasons. Maybe it’s because you don’t know whether you’re any good or not. Maybe your friends are telling you you’re fantastic but you don’t know if it’s true or not. So if you want other people to see your film, see which festivals give you feedback, so if you don’t get selected you know why.
If you do get nominated or win, then make a big deal out of it.
If you’re ready to move into wanting to be signed or win commissions, then there are a lot of ways to maximise the value of entering a festival or awards. If you do get nominated or win, then make a big deal out of it on social media or send out a newsletter. I’d also think about using that nomination or win to start cold emailing or even cold calling people and saying “I’m a new filmmaker, I’ve just won this, I’d love to have a conversation with you if possible.” Commissioners need a reason to open an email and start a conversation and an awards win is a really brilliant way to do that.
So, I have to ask, how much crossover has there been between Directors Notes and Shiny over the years?
I think we’ve occupied similar ground. MarBelle’s been in a couple of panels at our live events. I knew of MarBelle back from working at Radar and noticing DN and booked him for a few events. There’s a lot of crossover too! I did a survey last week with the people we featured and over a third have been featured on DN. I said to them: “If you don’t DN you must really go check it out because it’s excellent!”
And finally, what have been some of Shiny’s biggest success stories?
There are loads of directors whose early work has been featured by Shiny and are now signed, winning at major festivals and making big budget work. Charlotte Regan is moving into another league now at Knucklehead, making commercials but also she was recently commissioned by the Guardian to make a documentary. Anthony Rubinstein got good contacts and conversations from featuring in Shiny and will probably take off soon. Ditto with Sophia Carr-Gomm and Milo Blake, again an early winner at the Shiny Awards who’s now with Papaya Films. It’s a long game, becoming successful in commercial production. A lot of directors are signed and dropped, then signed again. It must be very hard for directors, but if they’re very good they usually keep popping up.
For more information about entering your work in the Shiny Awards and the ways in which they bring filmmakers and industry together head over to the website.