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London Film Fest Programs Season’s Best

Opening and closing with a double dose of Tom Hanks — the European premieres of “Captain Phillips” and “Saving Mr. Banks” — the 57th BFI London Film Festival is set to give British audiences their first look at many of the year’s most talked-about films.

With a packed program of hot festival hits such as “12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity,” “Philomena,” “Labor Day,” “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “Nebraska,” and “Don Jon,” the challenge for artistic director Clare Stewart in her sophomore year is to ensure that the rest of the fest’s 234 features get a fair share of the spotlight.

“It is a really strong year. As a festival director you feel really blessed at the luxury of choices on offer,” Stewart says. “But our responsibility is also to come up with a way into all parts of the program for media and audiences.”

She introduced several such innovations when she arrived last year from Sydney to take over a festival that had already grown strongly in the previous decade under former artistic director Sandra Hebron.

Stewart shrank the festival from 16 days to 12 to concentrate press and public attention, but raised the capacity 27% by expanding to more venues across London. She launched an official competition, and grouped films by thematic pathways — Love, Debate, Dare, Laugh, Thrill, Cult, Journey, Sonic and Family — each with its own gala screening.

The result was a 13% leap in ticket sales to 151,000. Most gratifyingly for Stewart and her bosses at the British Film Institute, 33% of tickets were sold to first-timers.

Audience polling proved that the pathways were leading people into new discoveries. “In one of the (audience feedback videos), someone said, ‘I would never have gone to a subtitled film, but you played it the Love section so I went for it,’” Stewart notes with pleasure.

After such a major restructuring last year, Stewart is making only minor tweaks to her successful formula, such as incorporating the shorts and retrospectives into the pathways. “This is a year of consolidation,” she says. “Our more significant new initiatives are planned for next year.”

While the sponsored galas for Oscar hopefuls such as “12 Years a Slave” and “Gravity” are likely to garner the greatest media buzz, the beating heart of this year’s festival is its official competition.

This contains 13 films, four of them British — Richard Ayoade’s “The Double,” Clio Barnard’s “The Selfish Giant,” Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” and David Mackenzie’s “Starred Up” — alongside Peter Landesman’s “Parkland,” Ritesh Batra’s “The Lunchbox,” Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Ida,” John Curran’s “Tracks,” Ahmad Abdalla’s “Rags and Tatters,” Catherine Breillat’s “Abuse of Weakness,” Jahmil X. T. Qubeka’s “Of Good Report,” Xavier Dolan’s “Tom at the Farm” and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s “Like Father, Like Son.”

“I’m very proud of the competition lineup,” notes Stewart. “The British films, for example, are all very distinctive, mature work.” She highlights “Rags and Tatters” from Egypt and “Of Good Report” from South Africa.

“These films might not immediately have drawn wider attention,” says Stewart, “but in positioning them in competition, it gives them a good profile.” This year’s splashy events include a masterclass by Alfonso Cuaron, and public interviews by Ralph Fiennes, Breillat and Kore-eda. The strength of British filmmaking will be discussed in a panel titled “British Cinema — Homegrown and All Grown Up,” while Film London chief exec and former LFF director Adrian Wooton is giving a talk titled “William Faulkner: Film Noir & Nobel Prizes” prompted by James Franco’s adaptation of “As I Lay Dying.”The 57th London Film Festival runs Oct. 9-20.

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