Nestled in the heart of zkipster’s original hometown is a thriving hub of the film festival world. Simon Grüter, an Event Manager with the Zurich Film Festival, shares some of his stories of stars and what it takes to run a successful film festival.
Hi Simon, tell us a bit about yourself.
I am an Event Manager for the annual Zurich Film Festival, which runs from the end of September to the beginning of October.
I realized this would be my passion after working a side job in high school at a large event hall in Lucerne, where I checked tickets and showed guests around the hall. When people entered, they were often stressed and hurried; but several hours later, they left in a different state of mind: happy, relaxed, and in a good mood.
After being a part of that, I wanted to find a way to become a part of the event world, and I did!
Is there any quote or motto you live by in your events career?
I have two ground rules which help me succeed:
First: If anything unplanned happens, don’t panic – don’t blame anyone, look for a solution first, and act fast.
Second: If your guests don’t see the problem, you don’t have a problem!
What does the event team do at the Zurich Film Festival? Tell us more about how the team is set up.
It depends on the moment you ask this question. Because it’s kind of a cycle, I start planning again a few weeks after the festival ends in October. We have debriefings with all 150 partner companies we work with, which is where we get most of our financial support.
The government and city council provide some, but not nearly enough, so most of our funding comes from private companies. For everything we create, we first need a partner before we can move on. Our partners are very valuable to us, and the whole event team has to do their share of sponsoring work, and that has to start almost immediately.
What does that timeline look like?
With the private sector, all the big decisions for the next year have to be rolling by December; by June, we have to negotiate, create partnerships, and finalize new contracts. Every one of us Event Managers has their special field of responsibility, but we all work on sponsoring, networking, and maintaining partnerships throughout the year.
About three months before the festival, we start building events, putting together what we’ve talked about, and realizing the vision of the festival. However, the hardest part is waiting until it’s one month before the festival, where we really find out what’s going to happen. We can’t finalize our movie selection any earlier, so changes are still possible and always happening.
What drew you to working with a film festival, and why the Zurich Film Festival specifically?
I always loved movies. I grew up without a TV, so it was always really special to watch movies, especially at the cinema. The Zurich Film Festival came into my life a few years back in 2011 when a friend asked me if I would help him at the festival as a volunteer, because he was the Volunteer Coordinator. I agreed, and I loved it; for 11 days, I went every day to the festival center to get a new task.
I volunteered again the year after, and right after finishing up my exams, I signed up as an intern to the new Volunteer Coordinator. After that, I was given the chance to be part of the festival core team and I accepted!
What is a unique challenge of organizing a film festival that other event organizers might not realize?
The big unknown about the movies and the following time pressure. Which ones would we like to have? Are we able to show it? Who’s presenting it? Is it possible for someone of the cast or crew to show up? Will anyone like it and attend the screening?
Like I said before, it is no more than one month before the festival when the movie schedule is fixed, so we do a lot of work in a very short amount of time.
You must get some interesting guests at festivals – any favorite stories to share?
I have lots!
Once, I met Hugh Jackman: we were waiting in front of the cinema door, and I asked him how his day was so far. He told me with a big smile that earlier, he was riding a bike along the lake and up the hills and almost succeeded to get away from his guard – then the door opened and he went to the stage to collect his golden icon award.
A relatively small festival like the Zurich Film Festival doesn’t always get to host the biggest stars, and we never thought we would host people like Hugh Jackman or Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone; but one day we couldn’t believe our eyes when we actually saw them walk through the doors, thanks to our incredible guest management team!
That’s great! Anything else?
Have you ever seen pure elegance? Not made up by Photoshop, but for real? When Cate Blanchett walked over the green carpet and smiled, I believe in that moment everyone who saw her felt a wave of joy just to be there.
One funny thing I’ve heard are the high-pitched screams of young fans in a huge crowd. It’s pretty amusing to see them all holding signs and waving their hands in joy, just to catch a glimpse of Liam Hemsworth or Josh Hutcherson.
I’m also personally a big fan of Daniel Radcliffe and Woody Harrelson after I’ve met them in person, but I won’t tell you why. 😉
What event have you been most proud of in your career?
That’s a tough one – I’m proud of every event that goes smoothly!
One of my first big milestones was a movie premiere for the film “A Long Way Down”, directed by Pascal Chaumeil, based on the novel written by Nick Hornby. DCM Film Distribution gave us the task as a post-festival job, and at first it seemed like a piece of cake compared to all the events at the festival.
But then they made it possible for the whole cast & director to attend the event: Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collete, Imogen Poots, and Aaron Paul would all appear.
But because of that news, of the 1,200 invited guests, around 1,000 wrote back to attend! The booked cinema only had 750 seats, so we definitely had to adapt. We ended up adding another theater with 150 additional seats, set up a livestream from one screen to the other, scaled up the staff, informed the guests about the situation, and finally, during the event, found just the right moment to direct the guests to the second theater when the first was filled.
That was 2014, and we used zkipster as our guest list tool for the afterparty – it worked just perfect!
Photo: Karin Hofer from NZZ
What attribute do you think is the mark of an outstanding event team?
The capability to adapt to every possible scenario of an event. The real event never goes totally as planned, so be able to improvise on the spot!
Use the given resources, have lots of ideas, think them through, get rid of a few, create new ones, seek to achieve them and do not doubt yourself.
If you love your job and are passionate about it, you’ll never believe what’s possible – it takes endless hours of work, but seeing people enjoy it makes it totally worth it!
Describe the day-of for a big opening – what do you do to ensure success?
If I answered the question in full, we would be here for a long time – so just two things.
First: keep yourself available on that day, and get an extra phone charger (especially portable) so that your phone doesn’t die and you can still be mobile.
Second: don’t solely prepare for one plan, but have a backup (or several) in mind so that you have a solution to a problem on hand, just in case.
How do you think technology has changed an event organizer’s ability to produce outstanding events?
Technology brings us an endless number of new possibilities. As they evolve, there is something for every aspect of the event process. When I first used zkipster in 2014, for example, it was one of the first user-friendly guest list tools. Now, three years later, it’s a full event management software including invitation management, a seating tool, customized name badge printing, and much more.
Handling technology is a skill in itself nowadays, which can be a huge challenge for every event organizer. Knowing which new influence to follow and which trend to ignore is hard, but necessary – and in the end, that’s what it makes so interesting too!
Change will never end, so as long as we keep up, I think we can do great things.
Finally, what’s your favorite thing about your job?
I am always challenged in some way. Even when planning the same event, it’s never routine and factors are always changing – from the weather to the political stability to the people who make an appearance.
Thanks for sharing a few stories with us Simon!
My pleasure, thank you for having me. Now I hope you go out and watch some films!