With the world premiere of Sam Taylor Wood's anticipated exploration of John Lennon's childhood, "Nowhere Boy," the Times-BFI 53rd London Film Festival will come to a close tomorrow night after two weeks of screenings totaling 191 features and 113 shorts. It caps off what's been an important year for the still evolving fest. Additional funding from the UK Film Council allowed the materialization of what festival Artistic Director Sandra Hebron called "a whole series of aspirations that we've had for years." Among them, the introduction of new awards for best film and best British newcomer, which will be announced tonight (get the full list of winners here ), increasing the international profile of the fest through bringing international press, investing more in their nightly galas in London's Leicester Square, and including more world and European premieres (which stood at 15 and 23 this year, respectively).
Hebron sat down with indieWIRE in the midst of the madness to chat about the festival, which she has led for six years now. A former academic and short filmmaker, Hebron's excitement for the festival's potential profile growth as a result of this year's initiatives was quickly evident.
"For years, London was known as a festival of festivals," she said. "And that is important because it's a sort of great way of bringing films to London that might not get here otherwise. But I think in any festival you need to have some element of discovery too. It can't be a kind of greatest hits festival. I think particularly, when the timing works out, it's great if there's new British films we can give world premieres to. But at the same time, the festival is an international festival."
The festival opened with the premiere of Wes Anderson's "The Fantastic Mr. Fox", marking the second consecutive impressive opening night grab, after last year's "Frost/Nixon." Along with Los Angeles's AFI Fest (which opened with John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" last year, and less impressively will close with Kirk Jones' "Everybody's Fine" this year), London has been showing signs of its potential as an alternative premiere platform for major fall releases that either want to avoid the risk of getting lost in the Toronto-Telluride-Venice sea, or simply aren't ready in time for those end-of-summer fests.
Hebron feels this kind of thing is really important for the long term health of the London Film Festival.
"As you know, one of the things we're trying to do this year is raise the international profile a little," she explained. "And that's just not about wanting to do that for the sake of it. I mean, why do we want to raise the international profile? Why do we want to improve the services that we provide for our industry delegates? Because actually, that's how you get a good festival for the public. The more that filmmakers and film companies want to put their films in London, the better the program will be for the audiences. So I see all those things as very clearly linked."
Despite scoring the premieres of the quite well-received "Mr. Fox" and likely to be well-received "Nowhere Boy" (early reviews have been glowing, and it just got six British Independent Film Award nominations), and premiering 13 other films that have found varied responses (Malcom Venville's "44 Inch Chest," Sarah Turner's "Perestroika," Penny Woolcock's "1 Day" and Chris Atkin's "Starsuckers" among them), London is still predominately a showcase for the best cinema screened in fests like Cannes and Toronto. It's interesting to attend the festival directly after the New York Film Festival. Arguably the cultural capital cities of the two most populated English-speaking nations in the world, New York and London take on their fall film showcases in very different manners.
"London is not New York," Hebron said. "We are a much bigger festival. We have a very broad range, which is to show the best of world cinema. And that really is delightfully broad. What that means is that the program ranges from, at one end of the spectrum, artist film and video, experimental work, restorations, right through to the pre-release premieres of films that will have significant distribution in the UK. What we don't do is the big, purely commercial studio pictures. We will show studio pictures if they kind of fit with the festival... So if they're intelligent, original or smart, not if they're just purely going after a commercial audience."
Though Hebron got quite defensive of the smaller, much more curated NYFF - which was heavily criticized this year for being too elitist and bleak.
"I love the New York Film Festival," she said. "It's almost like the perfect film festival for me in that it's small and focused. I think that Richard [Pena] is a really great festival director. I think he has good taste, and I think he's very collegiate. We've swapped information back and forth between us many a time. So I found all that criticism really dispiriting, and kind of mean-minded in a way. However, that's another story..."
Another contrast between London and New York is that while NYFF underwent some considerable changes this year, at least in part due to economic restraints from the recession (including a downsizing of the lavish opening night party), the 2009 LFF seemed almost recession-proof. On one hand due to government funding from aforementioned institutions like the UK Film Council, and on another - due to surprising strength from commercial sponsors.
"The festival relies very heavily on commercial sponsorship," Hebron explained. "It's at least a third of our income... And what has been incredibly gratifying this year is that actually we have exceeded our targets on that front. Now, whether that's going to continue next year is another thing. We were worried for this year. But I think part of what's been helpful for us is that we have a number of sponsors who have stayed with us through several years. So I think it's always easier to retain sponsors than it is to find new ones. But we can't be complacent about next year. The recession is not going to disappear over night."
A major issue next year should find itself in the fact that 2009 was London's final year with UK newspaper The Times as their headline sponsor, so Hebron admits that they have a "large gap to fill."
Either way, the fact that the festival hit its box office target seven days ahead of schedule certainly bodes well in one regard. Even the plentiful weekday afternoon screenings were often packed, and the festival managed to fill London's famed Trafalgar Square with over 4,500 people on a cold October night for a screening of... archival shorts about public transit.
"I mean it's archive shorts," Hebron squealed with excitement. "And its London in October! Not exactly noted for its great weather."
The London Film Festival continues through tomorrow night.