Interview with award-winning film and TV producer Lisa-Marie Tonelli FRSA

"I was always encouraged by others to take a different career path into a more “serious” profession, as a job in the creative industries was seen by some as indulgent and frivolous... Now I am the Founder & Festival Director of the North East International Film Festival."

Interview with award-winning film and TV producer Lisa-Marie Tonelli FRSA

Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?

My Name is Lisa-Marie Tonelli – I am the Founder & Festival Director of the North East International Film Festival, which is the youngest ever BIFA and IMDB qualifying film festival. It is one of only 80 festivals worldwide to adopt the F-Rating, representing females in film, the first ever festival to sign up to the BBC 50/50 Equality Project, making that organisational commitment to diversity, and the first ever festival to receive the Raising Films Ribbon for creating an inclusive space for Filmmaker, Audience and our Team. The NEIFF is also the only carbon negative film festival as for every ticket purchased online, one tree is planted. 

I am also a multi-award winning Freelance Independent Film Producer, through my company, Keepin’ It Reel Productions Ltd, a Trustee for Fertile Ground, which is a performance arts organisation, a Board Member for AutismAble CIC, a Diversity and Inclusion Champion, and an active Volunteer for Star & Shadow Cinema – which is the UK’s only cinema featuring an accessible projectionist booth. It is here that I am involved in cinema projection, facilitating accessible and relaxed screenings and involved in the Community Kitchen. I am an International Multicultural Distinguished Honorary Advisor for the Federation of World Cultural & Arts Society Singapore (FOWCASS), a Fellow of The Royal Society Of Arts (FRSA) and an Industry speaker who occasionally delivers talks and presentations at our regional Universities and Film Societies.

I am also a full-time mum 😊

What does your job involve? What happens on a typical day?

My role day to day includes a myriad of varying tasks. I could be delivering an industry related talk to students at my local University in the morning, then preparing sponsorship presentations, drafting contracts, watching films, cinema projection, making Digital Cinema Package files, inbox admin, preparing budgets, filing taxes, radio interviews. Some days there are real ‘pinch me’ moments whilst others consist of repetitive tasks or laborious admin.

What’s great about what you do?

For me, being a core component of a community that offers innovation opportunities and growth support to a previously under-represented demographic in the region (and internationally), is the best part of what I do. Through my various roles, I am able to offer others opportunities to increase their skill set and a platform in which to showcase their work. Working with those from marginalised backgrounds, charities and young people is a big part of what I do and also brings me the most satisfaction. I also love the freedom and flexibility that being a freelancer allows me and working for myself provides the opportunity to shape my own company.

What are the toughest parts of your job? 

Being self-employed sometimes means that I don’t know when to put the laptop away and call it a day. As I take on more than one role in festival development and delivery, I really need to ensure that I manage my time effectively, so organisation is key!

What are the highlights of your career to date?

I feel incredibly blessed, as there have been more than a few highlights during my creative journey.

In 2019 I won various Best Producer awards internationally for the first short film I ever fully produced. I then managed to sell this film on a 3 year contract to Shorts TV in the US. 

The NEIFF has been shortlisted for many awards, the Makers & Shakers Awards held at BAFTA in 2022 and 2023 for Initiative To Grow Local Industry, The Small Awards  - through Small Business Britain, The British Business Awards in various categories and the Inclusive Companies Awards, to name a few. It is always extremely humbling to be recognised for the work that we do and for the ethos and core values we adhere to.

Last year my festival also became the youngest ever BIFA qualifying film festival, having been granted BIFA status after just one year. I am also incredibly proud that over the last 2.5 years, my organisation has supported almost 100 volunteers with practical skills training and placement opportunities in partnership with our local universities, colleges, schools and charities.

In 2022, in honour of my work with the North East International Film Festival, I was added to the Northern Power Women 2022 Future List. I was also the winner of the Champion Of Women Award 2022, one of four people shortlisted for the prestigious BAFTA For The Love Of Film Awards Competition 2022, I was invited to become a Fellow Of The Royal Society Of Arts and I became a member of the F-Entrepreneur IAlso100 list 2023, which is a list of the UK’s most inspirational and dynamic female entrepreneurs. 

I was also recently honoured to received the Prime Minister's Points of Light Award for my work with the NEIFF.

What's been the biggest challenge so far in your career? How did you overcome it?

The creation of the NEIFF was not without challenge. I was a new mother, suffering with various spinal issues and the festival came into being during a pandemic. The early days of my business development mostly took place from my bed, during my son’s nap times and other unsociable hours as I was unable to sit or stand for extended periods of time. The festival was entirely self-funded and as it was founded during Covid times, and very much relied upon the hosting of live events. This meant that gaining sponsorships and funding was extremely tricky. I very quickly realised that in order to attract sponsors, I would have to offer more than one unique selling point. Through the preparation and inclusion of many first ever initiatives and the adoption of others, I was able to present something new and exciting for investment.

I also found public speaking extremely challenging (and still do, although I appear to hide this a little more convincingly). Unfortunately for me, speaking publicly is a big part of my job role. I was given some really great advice by two university lecturers which has helped me in these situations (Thank you Russ and Ian!) One said don’t be afraid to fumble what you have rehearsed or if your presentation doesn’t go exactly to plan, your audience has no idea what you meant to say anyway. The other advised me to address my fear with the audience as this would likely endear them to me and they would be more likely to forgive my blunders.

What was your career path into this job? Have you also worked outside the arts?

The truth is, I never really knew what job I wanted to do until I was actually doing it!

I have previously worked outside of the arts in a multitude of roles for organisations such as Legal Services Commission, Probation Office, Job Centre Plus, Social Services and CAFCASS. Before my creative roles, I guess I was pretty much working to live as I never quite felt like I had found my career passion.

My path into the arts was almost accidental. I was in London one day when a very good friend of mine, who is also a producer, asked if I could do him a little favour. He and his friend (who is a director), were organising last minute casting sessions for a short film and they wanted to ensure a safe and welcoming environment for the actors. They therefore asked if I would attend the castings in order to put the actors at ease with a meet and greet. From this day I knew I was smitten with the profession and my roles progressed to location scout, production manager, line producer and eventually producer. I did not go to university to study filmmaking or production. I very much learned on the job and took online courses to help with the admin side of the role. I also volunteered my time on my first few projects in order to gain the experience required.

As a freelance independent film producer that had my own projects currently on the International Film Festival circuit, part of my role was discerning which of the many competitive festivals my work would be best suited to and to identify which categories would be most applicable for submission.

One evening whilst scouring through the list of various International festivals on FilmFreeway to submit my recently produced short film to, suddenly it occurred to me that Newcastle, the city I live in, appeared to be one of the only major UK cities that did not currently hold an annual international film festival event. This presented to me a massive gap in the market and with it, a fantastic opportunity. It was then that I decided to start my very own international film festival in the North East of England.

Have you noticed any changes in the industry in recent times? If so, what?

The barrier of entry for quality content in filmmaking is much lower than it was in the past. For example high quality content could be filmed on a phone and distributed for free on social media. This enables more opportunities for people from perhaps disadvantaged backgrounds or individuals from various countries to create great value content and have it seen worldwide using various online platforms for exhibition.

How has your background, upbringing and education had an impact on your artistic career? 

Growing up my Dad was very much involved in the film and entertainment industry, being one of the founders of Titan Media Close Protection Ltd, which was one of the first ever security and close protection companies in the UK to specialise only in film and TV. Titan have covered film sets for many Hollywood blockbusters and I was privileged to be able to visit these sets and be inspired by the work that goes on behind the scenes.

However, I was always encouraged by others to take a different career path into a more “serious” profession, as a job in the creative industries was seen by some as indulgent and frivolous.

You’ve been granted the ability to send a message to 16-year-old you. What do you say?

Don’t be afraid of looking foolish, have confidence in your knowledge and your abilities. Failures are necessary, that is how we learn. Never give up, you will inevitably hit a bullseye, it just may not be the one you were initially aiming for. Not all career journeys are the same, there are various avenues you can take in order to get you where you want to be. Almost anything is achievable!

Do you have any advice for young people interested in your field?

Volunteer your time, it’s a great way to gain practical experience and build your CV. Networking is essential – try to build a network of people with varying skills and expertise to your own so that if you are required to carry out a particular task or provide a certain service you may not have the appropriate skills for, you know someone who does. Constantly aim to upskill, attend courses and workshops. Hold yourself accountable in all situations. It is important to be able to give and also receive constructive feedback especially in the creative industries. Always say yes to an opportunity and figure out how you are going to do it later. The more things you say yes to, the more opportunities will come your way off the back of that. 

Where can people find you and your work online? 

Header Image Credit: Provided


Tom Inniss

Tom Inniss Voice Team

Tom is the Editor of Voice. He is a politics graduate and holds a masters in journalism, with particular interest in youth political engagement and technology. He is also a mentor to our Voice Contributors, and champions our festivals programme, including the reporter team at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

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