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London Film Fest Director Clare Stewart on Cinephilia as a Religion and Her Advice to Future Programmers

London Film Fest Director Clare Stewart on Cinephilia as a Religion and Her Advice to Future Programmers

As the Director of the London Film Festival and the Head of Exhibition at the BFI, Clare Stewart has curated and will showcase nearly 250 films this month. The London festival will run from October 8 to 19. Check back over the next two weeks for our LFF coverage. 

Ahead of the festival, Stewart spoke with Women and Hollywood about how she and her team increased box-office receipts by 42% over the last three years, what she loves about film festivals, which films excite her the most this year, and what advice she has for future programmers.

Women and Hollywood: You are now on
your third BFI London Film Festival. What has changed since your first?

Clare Stewart: Our primary focus over [the past] three years has been to simultaneously
build the international profile of the LFF while making it more accessible for
audiences in London and the UK. In the international context, we have been
building on several advantages — the significance of the UK market, London as a gateway
to Europe, the October timing in the awards-season corridor, and London’s high
volume of BAFTA and AMPAS voters. 

This year we are headlining with the European
premieres of The Imitation Game
(Opening Night), Fury (Closing Night), and Wild, the UK premieres of Foxcatcher, Mr. Turner,
and Whiplash, and a significant World
Premiere in Testament of Youth
(Centre Piece Gala). We also changed the program structure — introducing
competitive sections and pathways like Love, Dare, Laugh, Thrill — that will help
audiences navigate the program. 

We branched out to a number of neighborhood
venues, as well as the movie-going heartland at Leicester Square and the cultural
hub at BFI Southbank. And we now take our Opening and Closing Night films, and
sometimes other screenings, out simultaneously across the UK with satellite
cross to interviews with the filmmakers and talent on the red carpet. This has
resulted in substantial audience growth in London — from 133,000 to 151,000 — and additionally over 11,500 people who accessed last year’s UK wide screenings. 

This year, we have started scaling up our Industry Events Program, working on
it with our colleagues in the BFI Film Fund, and last year we doubled our Press and
Industry screenings, with more than 150 films available.

W&H: What are the
biggest challenges the Festival faces?

CS: Resource is always the biggest challenge, especially when you are
expanding and increasing the value proposition of the Festival. Our box office
has grown by 42% in three years, but this is not enough to take risk out of the
equation. We rely on the support of sponsors, donors, and government to back
both our core activity and our vision for the LFF’s future.
 

W&H: You seem to
have a good amount of women-directed films, including premieres of Carol
Morley’s The Falling and Susanne Bier’s long-awaited Serena. Do you do anything deliberate to
make sure that you have enough women in the line-up, because other film
festivals say they have a hard time finding women filmmakers.

CS: Deputy Head of Festivals Tricia Tuttle and I are both committed
and passionate advocates of women directors. We do actively seek them out,
though on balance the decision to invite a film is always made on the strength
of the filmmaking — true to the principles of equality! Carol Morley, C
éline Sciamma, and Ana Lily Amirpour all have films in the Official Competition for example. Susanne
Bier has two films in the program, Serena
and A Second Chance, and there is
also some great discovery talent too, like Shonali Bose, whose film Margarita, with a Straw I first saw in
the work-in-progress screenings at the Goa Film Bazaar. 

Still, whilst we have 54 women directors representing feature
films, that’s only representative of about 22% of the overall program, and some of them
are co-directors. I do believe our industry has an obligation to strive for
greater diversity across the board.

W&H: Please can you
talk about the program categories this year — 
Love, Debate, Dare, Laugh, Thrill, Cult, Journey, and Sonic — and what we should be looking for with these themes?

CS: These were introduced in my first year in 2012 and were designed
to help audiences access the 248 films on offer. We looked at audience research
initially to determine what informs audience choice, and these program sections are a direct response to that. We now have program advisors for these
sections as well as our regional advisors. The selections are always textured
and surprising — this year in our Love section, for example, you will find
films about familial love, such as Cedric Kahn’s powerful Wild Life or the wrenching Hungry
Hearts
alongside more romantic films like Alan Rickman’s A Little Chaos (Love Gala) or Ira Sach’s
Love is Strange. (In fact, that is
possibly the only film in our Love section where love feels normal!). 

Our
strand galas, which are the headline films for each section, include the
European premieres of Jon Stewart’s Rosewater
(Debate), Jacob Cheung’s The White Haired
Witch of Lunar Kingdom
(Cult), Tomm Moore’s follow-up to The Secret of Kells — Song of the Sea (Family), and Alan
Rickman’s A Little Chaos (Love), as
well as the UK premieres of Winter Sleep
(Journey), Mommy (Dare), Wild Tales (Laugh), The Salvation (Thrill), and Bjork:
Biophilia Live
(Sonic).

W&H: Are
there any films in particular that you are excited about?

CS: Such an impossible question! I am very excited by the whole
line-up. I love that our Official Competition section recognizes inspiring,
inventive, and distinctive filmmaking — celebrating filmmakers who take risks
and pull them off. I think we’ve given our jury, led by producer Jeremy Thomas,
a tough and pleasurable task — three by British directors (Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy, Carol Morley’s The Falling, and Daniel Barber’s The Keeping
Room
); seven by leading lights of
international cinema (Peter Chan’s Dearest, C
éline Sciamma’s Girlhood, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, François Ozon’s The New Girlfriend, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The President, and Aberrahmane Sissako’s
Timbuktu); and two impressive
first-timers (Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and
Julius Avery’s Son of a Gun). That is
a fine group of films right there.

W&H: You
are the BFI’s Head of Festivals & Cinemas, which entails not only the LFF
but also other festivals, including the BFI Flare
London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
What do you like most about your job?

CS: I love connecting films with audiences and audiences with films.
The richest pleasure always comes in the moment of presentation, when you have
enabled someone to discover a film they might otherwise never have known about,
when you ask a filmmaker a question on stage that goes to the heart of what
they want to communicate, when you walk into the cinema and feel the hum of
anticipation in the air from the expectant audience, when debate breaks out in
the programming team or the audience Q&A. It’s a strangely religious
impulse. I really do want to convert as many people as possible into being
life-long lovers of film!

W&H: What
advice would you offer any people who are interested in becoming film-festival
programmers?

CS: Immerse yourself. Get in deep. Love film and feed that constantly,
see everything, talk and write about everything, and remember that programming
is not the same as film criticism. Every good decision is informed by both your
knowledge of film and your awareness of audiences. So don’t just do your
homework online or in the loungeroom, but commit yourself to honing up on film
history at your local Cinémathèque, make sure you are observing the way
audiences respond to things, and get to know the mechanics of the cinema. Do some
time in front-of-house and get confident talking in front of people, to
media, and to film-industry professionals. There is no school for programmers, no tried-and-tested path, but if you love film and people, then it’s a super-rewarding path.

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