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London Film Fest: Capital crowd pleaser

Organizers gain fiscal ground, raise fest's profile

Despite the uncertain financial climate, the BFI London Film Festival is on a roll. Its funding from government and sponsorship might be under pressure, but the fest is winning where it counts most — with audiences.

Ticket sales rose last year by 9,000 to hit 125,000. Artistic director Sandra Hebron says even she was surprised at this spike in attendance.

That was an immediate return for the U.K. Film Council’s decision to award the fest an additional $2.8 million in lottery coin over three years, bringing its annual budget to $9.5 million, in order to add some extra glitz and buzz.

The money paid for more marketing and more press conferences with filmmakers, plus it enabled the fest to invite international press to London for the first time. These innovations will continue this year.

“One of the key things of that added investment was to raise the profile of the festival,” Hebron says. “But it’s odd, when we were aiming for profile-raising, we weren’t actually anticipating a rise in attendance, particularly in the first year.

“The public profile of and appetite for festivals generally is increasing year on year,” she observes. “But we also made an effort to reach parts of London we hadn’t reached before. What’s very gratifying is that since our big evening screenings were already selling out 100%, those additional 10,000 people came to the matinees and the less high-profile films.”

Clearly, the LFF’s long-established formula of providing a U.K. launchpad for the best new films from the year’s major international festivals, plus a smattering of world premieres, is more popular than ever with the London public. That visible success is a crucial weapon in the battle to persuade the government and sponsors to maintain their support at a time when budgets are being slashed across the board.

By coincidence, the U.K.’s new Conservative/Liberal Democratic coalition will announce its spending cuts across all government departments on Oct. 20, right in the middle of this year’s LFF. The Dept. of Culture, which funds the British Film Institute and has already announced plans to axe the UKFC, is expected to be particularly hard hit.

“Like everyone else, we’ve been asked to model for a 25% cut in public spending,” Hebron says. “But even if the BFI does experience that level of cuts, we don’t know how that will be spread. One thing I do know, the festival is a very core activity of the BFI and a very public showcase of what the BFI does.”

The advantage for the LFF is that subsidy accounts for only a quarter of its income. Ticket sales make up 15%, and the remaining 60% comes from commercial sources, either as gifts in kind or sponsorship, which is holding up well despite the tough economic climate. American Express has come on board this year as principal sponsor, after the Times newspaper dropped out. There’s also new backing from Microsoft’s Windows 7.

Hebron believes that any cut in state subsidy won’t impact on the fest’s ability to attract corporate support. “Companies tend to focus on what is the specific gala or event they are being asked to support, not on our wider funding issues.”

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