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BFI London Film Fest Looks to Stand Out Amid Prestigious European Rivals

The rolling up of the red carpet in Venice has traditionally been the signal each year for industry players to decamp across the Atlantic. With the Berlin, Cannes, and Venice film festivals in the rearview mirror, the focus pivots to North America, to Telluride and Toronto.

Clare Stewart’s job is to shift some of that attention back to Europe. The head of the BFI London Film Festival, which kicked off Oct. 5, Stewart has been assembling a lineup of more than 240 movies, encompassing glossy Hollywood productions and undiscovered gems, which she hopes will make the industry — and audiences — sit up and notice.

“We’re building London as an ‘alternative European moment’ to Berlin, Cannes, and Venice as a launch for some of the year’s most significant films,” says Stewart, an Australian who previously oversaw the Sydney fest.

When it comes to talent, either in front of or behind the camera, few countries can rival Britain, with its Oscar-winning actors and directors, craftspeople, and stellar post-production facilities. Yet what Britain has historically lacked is a top-tier film festival on the order of Sundance, Cannes, Berlin, Venice, and Toronto.

Tradition is partly to blame. When the London event was first held, in 1957, the aim wasn’t to compete with more famous Continental counterparts but to introduce those festivals’ best films to the British public.

“Cannes is Cannes … It’s a different beast entirely. Venice and Berlin are behemoths and have been that way for a long time,” says Mark Adams, head of the Edinburgh Intl. Film Festival, which, along with London, is Britain’s best-known fest.

Timing has worked to Britain’s disadvantage. The London event falls after bigger-name fests have already scooped up many of the most buzzed-about movies. Offerings at this year’s 60th edition include “La La Land,” “American Honey,” and “Moonlight,” which were already successful at earlier festivals, and a slew of foreign titles.

But London has grown in scope and reputation in recent years, and it’s attempting to turn its place on the calendar from a liability to an asset. With the fest on the cusp of awards season, London is an increasingly attractive stage on which to keep hopefuls in the spotlight. World premieres of major titles are still rare, but European premieres are plentiful. (This year’s include “Manchester by the Sea,” “The Birth of a Nation,” and “Trolls.”)

“If you have a distributor and you play at the London Film Festival, it’s all about maximizing the awareness of the film for its later release,” says British producer Stephen Woolley, whose film “Their Finest” will have its European premiere in London, after scoring U.S. distribution in Toronto. “If you don’t have a distributor, then you’re more likely to really need one of the other festivals, which are really selling festivals.”

Stewart has worked hard to continue promoting the London festival’s international profile while staying true to its original mission to serve the British public.

“We are a festival that straddles more than one thing,” she says. “The red-carpet glamour, the awards-season positioning … that is an important component in what we do.” But the festival still presents a highly curated mix of independent, experimental, and foreign movies to local audiences. “We don’t want to stray from that. For me, it’s kind of the best of both worlds.”

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