A moving image: BA alumnus Thomas Caldwell, MIFF Programmer

The programmer for Australia’s largest and most prestigious film festival - the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) - Thomas Caldwell has made a career out of his passion for the moving image.

MIFF Programmer Thomas Caldwell at the MIFF office

MIFF Programmer Thomas Caldwell at the MIFF office. Photo by Alejandra Rivera.

As far back as he can remember, Thomas Caldwell has been enthralled by movies. As a kid, he was transfixed by black and white movies on daytime TV, and his first cinematic experiences were of being blown away by the sheer spectacle and emotional impact of films like The Empire Strikes Back and E.T.

"When I was young, I thought Harrison Ford was the greatest person on earth," he laughs. "He was Indiana Jones and Han Solo. I had a real appetite for cinema all throughout my childhood and teen years, which broadened as I discovered foreign language films and art house cinema," he says.

Now the programmer for Australia's largest and most prestigious film festival - the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) - Caldwell has made a career out of his passion for the moving image.

But despite his love for all things cinematic, it was far from given that Caldwell would pursue a career - or even studies - in film.

"My parents never took it seriously," he recalls. "I was always taping things off the TV and I think that annoyed them. But I had a few really influential English teachers at school who introduced the idea that you could take film seriously as an art form."

The effect was liberating.

"I'd become obsessed with films like 2001: Space Odyssey and Blade Runner, both films that seemed to have an intellectual quality," he explains. "It was exciting to have teachers validate that, saying, 'These are thoughtful films incorporating traditional philosophical thought'."

Studying screen

Caldwell went on to study cinema when he finished high school, enrolling himself first in a Bachelor of Arts and then an Honours year at the University of Melbourne.

"When I realised I could study cinema academically at university – that was the greatest thing ever. I was in heaven. When I was in first year, I'd find out when the film screenings were for all the other subjects, and I'd go to the second and third-year screenings as well."

Like many people fresh out of university, Caldwell didn't know exactly what he wanted to do when he finished his degree - but he knew it had to be in the film world. He started getting published as a film critic, worked with Melbourne’s community television station Channel 31 presenting, talked on radio about film, and even wrote a textbook on film analysis. But all the while, he also worked in sales and marketing which, while not Caldwell's idea of a dream job - "It paid the rent," he says - stood him in good stead when in 2012 MIFF advertised a vacancy for the festival's programming role.

"It suddenly all fell into place," he recalls. "I thought my background of knowing so much about film but also having a corporate, business background actually might work in programming."

Unfortunately, he didn't get the job. "I was devastated. But they remembered me, and when a position came up a year later to program shorts and the Next Gen program, they got in touch."

Caldwell stayed in this position for six festivals before moving into the role he originally applied for.

The kid that once taped midday movies onto VHS in his living room now travels around the world sourcing the best of international cinema to screen in locations around Melbourne.

"This year, I went to Sundance Film Festival, Berlinale and Cannes," he says. But he's quick to point out that it's not all red carpet and glamour - in fact, Caldwell barely sees that side of it at all.

"It's actually very intense. For my job I'm expected to see as much as possible, so I'll see five or six screenings a day. There's a lot of queuing, uncertainty, haggling, and fighting crowds to get to one thing or the other. It's amazing because you're seeing great films, but it's also hard work."

Back in Melbourne, Caldwell works with MIFF's artistic director to select feature films for the festival from submissions. "There's a lot of emailing sales agents and distributors, negotiating sales fees, asking for screeners, tracking what films are out there in the world that our audiences may potentially like - and then just watching a huge amount of content around the clock."

MIFF Programmer Thomas Caldwell at the MIFF office

MIFF Programmer Thomas Caldwell at the MIFF office. Photo by Alejandra Rivera.

MIFF x University of Melbourne partnership

The University of Melbourne now has a partnership with MIFF, so Caldwell also works with students from the University who complete internships with the festival, assisting in a range of roles each year.

In the early part of the planning year, their work is largely logistical: logging submissions, research, sorting feedback from panellists to those who have submitted their films for entry. As the festival draws closer, interns are given more project-based work.

For students who have their eye on careers in the arts sector, experience working for a major festival is invaluable.

"The intern program is intense," Caldwell says, "but it gives them a lot of really great hands-on experience. So many of our interns have gone on to terrific jobs in the industry. It's been really fulfilling over the years seeing a lot of our interns get jobs with us, but also really impressive jobs with other organisations."

Caldwell also oversees the MIFF Talks program, a series of 13 talks and panel discussions with guest filmmakers, presented in partnership with the University of Melbourne. They tackle questions around who has the right to tell which stories, the representation of disability on screen, and how the online world has changed the way we interact with one another.

So when the festival is over, what's next for Caldwell?

"I always feel like the new year starts in September," he says. "Until December it's a great time to research and plan next year's retrospectives. But from January, it all starts to crescendo again, with Sundance and then Berlinale shortly after."

And so the cycle begins again.