BFI London Film Festival: The capital projects a sharper festival

The capital's celebration of cinema has had a troubled history. But, aided by a cash injection, it is at last shedding its B-movie status, says Kaleem Aftab

The highly anticipated Wes Anderson picture Fantastic Mr Fox is having its world premiere at the London Film Festival. It's a huge coup for the event that one of the most highly anticipated films of the autumn season has chosen to ignore the allure of Venice and Toronto and premiere in the capital.

The Hollywood studio behind the stop-motion animation may have felt that any adaptation of a Roald Dahl classic should premiere in the UK, but producers, particularly from American studios, do not usually make decisions based upon sentiment. Instead a calculation would have been made that the opening-night launchpad would create sufficient buzz to give the box-office a boost when the movie is released across the globe in the next few weeks.

This is the biggest opening-night film in the history of the event. It seems to have more stars on the cast list than are in the Milky Way. George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray are all expected to be smiling on the red carpet on Wednesday. It's further evidence of the burgeoning reputation of the festival ever since it came under the stewardship of the enigmatic artistic director Sandra Hebron. Under her watch the festival has garnered a reputation for being like a "greatest hits" album, featuring all the best films that have appeared on the circuit during the course of the year.

Who in London needs to go to Cannes when all the best films from the Croisette will be on the Thames? Receiving their UK premiere at the festival will be the black-and-white-shot Palme d'Or winner The White Ribbon from Austria's master Michael Haneke, about community strife in a rural Protestant village in northern Germany on the eve of the First World War; the superb French prison drama A Prophet, directed by the maverick Jacques Audiard, and which picked up the Grand Prix; and for more eclectic taste there is the controversial Un Certain Regard winner Dogtooth, directed by Greek provocateur Giorgos Lanthimos, a black comedy that features the most mundane sex scenes committed to celluloid, and focuses on a dysfunctional family searching for the animal inside them.

Missed Sundance and Toronto? Don't worry, because the audience-prize winner from both these festivals, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire is on the programme. The same is true of the Golden Lion winner from Venice, Samuel Maoz's Lebanon; Berlin's Golden Bear winner, Claudia Llosa's The Milk of Sorrow; and Lu Chuan's City of Life and Death, which won the top prize in San Sebastian. Also getting a UK premiere is She, a Chinese, the British film directed by novelist-turned-film-maker Xiaolu Guo, which took the top prize at Locarno.

As well as films that have already been winning festival awards, there is a heavy dose of anticipated titles that are expected to be in the running come Oscar time. In addition to the two big George Clooney movies (Grant Heslov's psychic soldier comedy The Men Who Stare at Goats and Jason Reitman's airport romp Up in the Air) there will be premieres of Jane Campion's John Keats biopic Bright Star; Jon Hillcoat's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's bestseller The Road; ex-Gucci head Tom Ford's debut A Single Man, featuring a brilliant performance from Colin Firth; the Coen Brothers Oscar front-runner A Serious Man; and Life During Wartime, Todd Solondz's surprising compassionate sequel to Happiness.

In addition to the curatorial skills of Hebron, one of the reasons why the event has grown in allure is because of the decision to make the Oscar ceremony earlier. As a consequence, Bafta also decided to have their awards ceremony earlier, and the film festival followed suit, moving from November to October. The move meant that the festival coincided more closely with the private screenings of films hoping to win awards, and all of a sudden stars were heading up the red carpet and then whizzing down Piccadilly to woo academy voters.

It is the type of programme that the London Film Festival could have only dreamed of putting on just five years ago. So this begs the question of why the festival has such a kudos problem. In terms of its international profile, the festival is not seen in the same league as festivals with similarly sized budgets, nor does the film industry see London as a must-attend event. Closer to home, people visiting London, or even Londoners themselves, don't even realise that the festival is going on. With a packed festival calendar (indeed, there are too many film festivals in the UK, let alone around the globe), it leads one wondering what exactly is the role of the festival.

It's in addressing these concerns that Sandra Hebron has shown herself to be an astute politician as well as programmer. She says: "I think there is a desire that the festival has greatest reach and impact we can have. What we are always looking to do is get the word out of what the festival is, in a sense that everyone in London when the festival is on should know that it is on. We are not at that stage yet. It is true that raising the profile is an ambition and I think in the last few years the profile has increased.

"I think where the kudos question comes in is that it's about quality of experience, so wanting audiences, if they come here, feeling that they have had a good time; definitely wanting film-makers to feel that London is the place that they want their film to play; and also wanting the industry to come. That is one level of kudos. Also it's about wanting the kudos of integrity and getting the balance right."

With it being impossible to argue against the quality of the programme, the festival this year is making a huge effort to up its standing, after receiving an extra £1.8m from the United Kingdom Film Council to spend on the event over the next three years. The money has been given in the hope that London can boost its lowly international reputation. Almost a million pounds is being spent this year on having an awards ceremony with a Best Film prize being handed out for the first time; more aggressive marketing; press conferences for the gala films; and creating more partnerships with companies to create private industry events.

The UKFC refused to give the film festival the grant last year when it said plans for the London Film Festival were not ambitious enough. There was a consultation process that dealt with proposals to make the festival competitive and move the dates to earlier in the summer. But Hebron says: "If the festival became competitive or changed dates that wouldn't be a festival that I was the head of".

This is because competitions have become the poisoned chalice of film festivals. Most of them stipulate that a film has to be a premiere to be in competition and there are simply not enough good films to satisfy this demand. Cannes takes the cream of the crop and Venice and Berlin get a choice selection, but the other festivals on the circuit have to compromise the quality of the programme to satisfy their eligibility status, simply because they're accepting films that have been rejected by other festivals. Luckily the competition idea, and the move, have been kicked into touch, at least until 2011 when the current three-year strategy comes to an end.

In the meantime, London is trying to get the best of both worlds in having a top prize without having a premiere requirement. But the concern, and it's a big one, is that the Best Film award and the ceremony is a terrible idea for heightening the reputation of the festival. When it's nearly impossible to remember what won the Baftas, what chance an award at the film festival? The award is a cheap gimmick that might look good on a movie poster supporting the UK release but adds little to the festival goal of raising the profile.

It does seem amazing that the festival never organised official press conferences for its gala screenings in the past, nor attempted to invite international press to come to the festival. These do seem like a more effective way of upping the kudos factor. They are staples of festivals around the world and the past failure to capitalise on stars attending the festival was always a great omission.

Hebron's determination to address the problem is a major factor in why the festival is on the rise. When Rome announced it was having a festival four years ago on the same dates as London's, many felt that this would have a detrimental impact on London. But the opposite has happened. It suddenly made the festival stop resting on its laurels and start creating an event that has a purpose; and it started working to premiere big movies such as Fantastic Mister Fox.

Hopefully none of the changes will affect what the festival is doing so well and should remain its core: programming the best films of the year.



14 to 29 October (www.bfi.org.uk/lff)

Four films not to miss at the LFF

Samson and Delilah

This debut feature from the Australian director Warwick Thornton is a love story that will melt the coldest of hearts. Rowan McNamara and Marissa Gibson star.

Nowhere Boy

Sam Taylor Wood's debut film stars Aaron Johnson as the young John Lennon, and deals particularly with his relationship with his mother, Julia (played by Anne-Marie Duff).

Vincere

A powerful biopic of Benito Mussolini full of melodrama, operatic grandeur and Futurist imagery, which investigates the claim made by a mental patient that the Fascist leader fathered her child.

A Prophet

'The Beat That My Heart Skipped' director, Jacques Audiard, continues his purple patch in the director's chair with this character-driven drama about the attempt of a young Arab to make the most out of being in prison.

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