LWLies meets the new artistic director of the London Film Festival to get the lowdown on preparations for this year's cinema jamboree.
Following the departure of Sandra Hebron as the artistic director of the BFI London Film Festival, this year sees Clare Stewart take over the creative reigns. We spoke to her ahead of the festival to find out what is still left for her to do, her reasoning behind some of the structural changes and how she'll know whether the 2012 festival has been a success.
LWLies: It's just over two weeks until the festival starts. What are you up to and what is there still left to do?
Stewart: Right now, we're doing a lot of the operational details. There's a lot of meetings around the different red carpet gala requirements with distributors and sponsors. There's a lot of work going into the finalising of our international guests. There are lots of schedules being juggled. And then there's a bit of last-minute programming going on too. We have our surprise film slot to fill so that is still something that is in play. Then there's the delightful joy of going over the various invitation lists to the many events.
Will you be present at the film festival doing introductions and Q&As?
Yes. Again, one of the things that is happening right now is that we're in the process of finalising all the juries and working out who's going to be doing intros and Q&As. And it's really exciting as we've got such a great array of talent coming into the festival. We also have expanded the festival out to new venues, and that brings with it a new set of logistics.
You've expanded the festival across London and further outside Zone One. Is the expansion as big and broad as you'd have liked?
It's obviously quite a different model for the festival, and I think that when you make change, it's important to make change that's backed up with analysis and good intentions. We wanted to take the festival to a broader audience, but we're also aware that to deliver a cultural event to a very busy metropolitan city is a very different proposition to doing a film festival in Park City or Cannes or on the Lido in Venice. Geographically, it's not possible for the festival to take over like in those places. This is also about thinking, how do we raise more consciousness and raise more opportunities for people to engage with the festival. We're going to see how it works this year, but so far we've had a really good response. Then we'll review it afterwards and ask whether we want to continue to expand.
Beyond the reach of the festival, there's the new award strands. Are they aimed more at the industry or the public?
Well, there's been awards at the last three festivals, so what's not new are the awards themselves or the awards ceremony. What is new is the fact that we're highlighting the films that are participating for the awards. They've been clearly identified within the programme structure. It was about enhancing something that was already there in the festival that had an industry focus and making it more visible.
Is the aim to perhaps have a competition that, in years to come, could compete with the Cannes, Venice, etc?
It's important to reflect on the fact the London Film Festival is a festival for the people of London, and that should always be the primary focus. But, of course, competitive sections within the festival is where the international media look, it's where the industry look, it's where the sales agents, talent agents and distributors look. It's not about saying we're in direct competition with other festivals, because each festival has a different environment. Things like the location and the time of year influence the programme make-up.
There appear to be more gala films this year. Was it an aim to get a bit more glitz and glamour into the festival?
There's actually a similar level of galas, it's just that it's presented differently. Previously there were Film on the Square galas, whereas this year there are galas for the different strands, so Thrill, Love, Dare, etc... The numbers are fairly similar. I think that you'll find that in the gala selection, the sponsored galas are films that there a lots of anticipation around. They will have a very big audience response and some great names attached to them. The strand galas are different, as they're covering more of the texture of the overall programme. So there's two strictly different gala at the festival. I'm very much looking forward to see how Leicester Square comes alive during those presentations.
What was impetus behind the new themed strands? What was the key goal with them?
Again, most of the changes we've made to the festival are a direct response to the audience. Even for a professional who has being navigating film festivals for many, many years, I still find it a rather daunting prospect when I get a new programme guide with over 200 films. I always ask: what are the films that I need to see? There's a history of presenting films in geographical categories, but it was time for a refresh. We had to ask whether that was still the way that people made a choice about what they're going to see. We undertook some exercises by both the marketing and programming teams at the BFI and we asked how to people choose what they go and see at the movies. And it was interesting to look at a variety of major UK and American audience surveys.
The thing that was consistent was that what informed moviegoers choice above and beyond all else was genre, ahead of stars, ahead of what friends think, ahead of reviews. So, well, this is something that seems to be a tangible reality from this survey, so we created these categories and tried to be playful with them. We had to be careful to not be too reductive in what we put in each section. We wanted to make them enticing and inviting to people who might be thinking about coming to the festival for the first time and are daunted by this very big selection of films. For our loyal and existing audience, it makes for a new and interesting way to navigate the programme.
Do you follow media coverage of the festival?
Yes, I follow it very closely. I read all the clippings – I love that I still call them clippings. I'm always very interested to understand how the films themselves are being received, but how our ideas for building and developing the festival have been received.
What is the biggest difference between working for London and working in your previous job at the Sydney Film Festival?
It's an interesting moment to ask that question as I feel like I'm a specialist in Olympic cities. The differences mainly arise from the cities themselves, and when you're putting on a festival, you're thinking about how the films will fit with the city. Also, the fact that the festival is in October, so we're locking our programme when Venice and Toronto are locking their line-up. With Sydney, it was in June so we were locking against the Cannes line-up. It has a very different feeling to it. The other big difference is that Sydney doesn't have a cultural venue like BFI Southbank where there's a cultural hub for filmgoing all year around. And that was something I was lobbying very hard for before I left, to get a dedicated moving image centre in Sydney.
How will you judge whether this year's LFF has been successful?
The first question is, did people see enough films that they love. Although, I always think it's good to have a bit of debate around the selection as well. There's also the metrics that we actually measure success by, such as box office and the number of people who have attended. But for me, I'd just like to have a sense that the city has embraced it.
The 56th BFI London Film Festival begins on October 10. For more info visit bfi.org.uk/lff