Festival links charms with biz

Event honchos strengthen bonds with Brit film industry

Filmmakers may love to use London as a setting for despairing visions of the future, like in “V for Vendetta” and “Children of Men,” but in the here and now the United Kingdom’s capital city feels largely optimistic on the back of a still-booming local economy, not least in film and television, and its success in securing the 2012 Olympics.

Although the Times London Film Festival (TLFF) is a largely noncompetitive event (its only major prize is the Sutherland Trophy for best first or second film), auds can sometimes feel like they’re in a marathon as they race around the capital for three weeks to see the 180-odd movies screened every year.

This year the festival, which runs Oct. 18-Nov. 2, will celebrate its 50th edition and has decided on a broader reach toward a greater prominence.

“The London Film Festival is an incredibly important film festival that is impressively organized by the British Film Institute,” observes Stewart Till, chairman of the U.K. Film Council, which funds the BFI, and the chairman and chief executive officer of UIP.

“It is a significant opportunity to launch a film, and it also gives Londoners the chance to immerse themselves over a couple of weeks in a whole variety of inspiring films from all over the world.

“Looking forward, just as London intends to become the premier sporting city when we host the 2012 Olympics, so too I think it’s realistic to hope that TLFF grows to become one of the top two or three film festivals.”

That’s certainly highly optimistic, given the TLFF will have to go some distance to catch up with Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Toronto in terms of quantity of premieres or indispensability for the industry.

Begun as a best-of fest skedded in the fall, TLFF is more an aud-focused than an industry-centered event. However, in recent years the fest has added a week of exclusive screenings of new product not yet acquired for U.K. distribution for press and industry delegates, among other initiatives.

Artistic director Sandra Hebron aims in the future to increase the TLFF’s usefulness to the industry, and reveals there are discussions afoot about creating an organized co-production market along the lines of Rotterdam’s Cinemart.

“People often talk about the tension between having an audience festival and a strong industry focus,” Hebron says. “I don’t think there’s any tension at all. If we don’t have strong links to the industry, our program would suffer, and audiences wouldn’t get access to the best range of films available.

“We talk about it being a public festival, but it’s a festival that has many publics, and some of them are professional.

“At the end of the day, they have very similar needs: a strong selection of work, well presented, supported by a whole series of key creative people on hand to talk about the work they made.”

In the run-up to this year’s 50th anniversary, Hebron and her team organized a series of consultations with key figures from the U.K. film industry, members of the press corps and aud members to garner opinion about what’s working and not working with the TLFF. Some influential industry figures are in favor of moving the fest’s dates to early summer.

Lizzie Francke, now exec producer for feature film at EM Media but also the former artistic director of the Edinburgh Film Festival and a governor of the BFI, is against a date change. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” she reckons. “Who wants to see movies in June or July when the sun’s out? The autumn is a great time to do a roundup of the year, and that’s traditionally always what it’s done. It’s a very positive thing.

“It would be a huge risk to move the festival to a summer date, especially as where the festival is now creates great synergy with the awards season.”

Hebron states: “We’re having a very live discussion about the dates of the festival and haven’t made a firm decision one way or another. The feeling we got from the industry through the consultation exercise was that where we sit now in relation to other festivals and award nominations is quite good. It seems the industry at large sees the festival as a place where their films can platform. That’s incredibly valuable to us, because if we didn’t have that, we’d be starting from a very different place.

“The direction they want it to move in is congruent with the direction we want to go in. Companies are increasingly thinking of it as a place to do their European press junkets.”

Danny Perkins, head of marketing at Optimum Films, notes, “The fest is a great setting and support for setting a film up for release. All key media and exhibitors are in London, so showing it in the fest gives it a decent start.

“Increasingly, in terms of acquisition, there have been times when we’ve watched a movie in London at public screenings, seen how they played and then bought it. Usually it’s been stuff we liked anyway and the screening confirmed our interest. If you’re thinking about buying something, a TLFF screening can confirm the decision or tell you whether you should hold back.”

However, several distributors say press coverage of the event still has some way to go, a fault not so much of the festival itself as of the local media, which give far less space to film-focused features, especially when it comes to specialized movies, than do similar publications on the Continent.

Robert Beeson of arthouse distrib Artificial Eye laughs ruefully about the press coverage of the fest. “Sometimes the sales agents are surprised that nothing gets reviewed,” he says. “They say, ‘What was the press like?’ And we say, ‘There is no press at the festival,’ and they’re rather taken aback by that. Films are previewed for London and that’s it. The Times does their bit because they’re the festival’s name sponsor, and Time Out magazine will cover most of the films that they’ve seen, and the Guardian will preview maybe 10 movies, but that’s about it.”

Beeson, like other industry figures, cites the lack of an attractive centralized congregating point where delegates can booze and shmooze together as one of the drawbacks of the London fest. Because screenings unspool at various venues, largely at the National Film Theater in the South Bank complex and in the Odeon West End in Leicester Square, visitors tend to disperse into central London’s many restaurants and bars.

“The fest’s historic problem ever since they moved beyond the NFT is finding somewhere where people can meet,” Beeson observes. “You’re thrown in and out of the Odeon West End pretty quickly because of the high turnover, so there is no industry area. They have a kind of delegates area down at the NFT, but that’s for the odd journalist from Sarajevo.

“It’s not like Venice, where you see people around all the time. In London, they come in, do their screening, and then they disappear. It’s just an awkward thing about where they are — they can’t really take over a space. It would be good if they could take over All Bar One just opposite the Odeon West End, but that would cost a lot of money. Only money is going to cure that.”

How very British: In the end, it all comes down to money and finding a good place to drink.

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