Friday, 7 September 2012

Notes On the London Film Festival 2012

If Frightfest is Christmas for film fans, the London Film Festival is, well, Christmas AND New Year's Eve all wrapped into one. The festival, while obviously not in the same league as Cannes, Venice and Berlin, has grown from strength to strength over the last decade, under the direction of Sandra Hebron. Last year was her last festival however, and new director Clare Stewart has already put her mark, having changed quite a few aspects, which I shall discuss below. And then in my next post, I shall suggest a few films in line with the kind of cinema we champion on my blog, alternative, cult, unusual...

When I came to London 15 years ago, the London Film Festival was hardly exciting. It was an opportunity to catch up with films that had been screened at bigger festivals earlier in the year, among some (often angry) pensioners. It did not help that they lost my form the first year I applied and did not get to see anything. However, with the advent of the internet, IMDB, Lovefilm, it is as if a new audience with an appetite for all sort of different cinemas has grown. And Sandra Hebron shaped up a great festival over her years, with her winning formula of glam premieres with Hollywood stars alongside smaller, independent films you stood little chance of seeing outside the festival. Thanks to her, the festival has developed a much more vibrant, buzzy yet informal atmosphere which I love. And it is a tribute to this ever increasing success that members box office day has become an even more infuriating experience than trying to book some Olympic tickets.

So what is new, what is the good, the bad, the ugly? First of all the festival is shorter, which is disappointing, 11 days instead of 14. And while the announcement that more venues were being used some time ago was excited enough, it turns out less screens are used per venue, so it does feel like there are less screenings altogether, with most films being shown twice or even just once, as opposed to the usual three times from previous years. This has already created a lot more schedule clashes than previously.

New venues have their plus and cons. On the one hand, less screens at the dreaded Vue West end are used, which is good news. An anomaly of sort, this cinema has got to be one of the worst in London, in need of a refurbishment a good ten years ago already, with poor legroom and dated decor. As surprising as it might sound for an outsider, London just does not have a decent cinema in the West End, since the majority of their audience are tourists, so there is no incentive to attract repeat business.

There is of course the BFI own venue on the South Bank (also called the BFI!), but with its 4 screens, 3 of them very small, it just does not have the capacity to host a festival of this scale. A new film centre was promised years ago but plans were abandoned due to the Tory cuts. It would have required £45M worth of funding, a drop in the sea of money lavished on the Olympics... Ah well!

But the problems with more venues, even with the welcome return of the Odeon West End, is that schedule clashes have the extra complication of having to work out the time required to get from one venue to another, from the Hackney Picturehouses to the Institut Francais to the Ritzy to the Renoir... Add to the equation the notoriously unreliable London Underground, and I can predict a lot of noisy latecomers and climbing over rows.

Another issue with the spreading into far away venues is the risk of diluting the atmosphere. While doing the Edinburgh Film Festival for the first time, I did lament the fact that with all the venues in different places, it hardly felt like a film festival, more like watching films in different places, and this is a risk being run in here, especially since most venues only have one screen, sometimes two reserved for the festival. A concentration of venues in a small area means a concentration of film festival attendees, more chance to bump into familiar faces, more buzz etc... I have always liked the BFI/Leicester Square axis so I truly hope some of it remains.

Clare Stewart also decided to reshape all the strands. Gone are the "French Revolutions", the British Cinema and Films on the Square etc... Instead, we now have sections by themes: Debate, Love, Cult... I have to admit, I do find it a little artificial. Films, and especially the kind of films shown at a serious festival are not easily summarised by one word, it is more the preserve of high concept blockbusters. Having said that, it does make it easier in some respect, for example I just want to see everything in the Cult selection!

A few competitive strands have been introduced also, after some timid attempts in previous years. And it might be a coincidence, but while gala screenings remain, there is a much lighter Hollywood presence  this year. While I am all for putting the spotlight on smaller films, we cannot deny that the glitz and glamour of premieres is also part cinema is all about, a pleasure that even Cannes indulges in. And indeed, it is a modern view of cinema that one can see the biggest blockbuster followed by a radical and experimental low budget back to back and enjoy them just as much.

It is Clare Stewart first year so it is probably too early to pass any kind of judgement before the festival has even began. But while she should be praised for making some radical changes, I do feel that the new direction of the festival is a little unfocused at the moment. Judgement will be reserved for after this first new edition. In my next post, I shall put the spotlight on some smaller and more unusual films in the line-up.

One thing is certain however, with Sandra Hebron gone and Clare Stewart in, it's goodbye to knee-high boots fetichists and hello to red shoes fetichists...

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