clare-Stewart LFF


This week the 56th London Film Festival begins with a sign of things to come. Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie opens the festival here in the capital and across the country thirty cinemas will be screening the red carpet arrivals before the film itself. It’s a fine beginning for a festival which may not feature some of the films which played recently at Toronto, Venice and Berlin but still has a number of unmissable events and films over its eleven days.

When the programme was announced a month ago the festival’s new director, under her remit as the newly created BFI Head of Exhibition, Clare Stewart introduced the new strands which group together films into the various categories (Love, Laugh, Dare, Cult etc) as well as detailing the new competition element to the festival.

Following a turbulent couple of years for the UK Film Industry Stewart’s positive and enthusiastic attitude are a much-needed steer for a festival which has an enormous amount of potential to match its reputation as a festival, first and foremost, for the public.

I spoke to Clare last week about the future of the festival as well as the influence the LFF felt from its close neighbours in the festival calendar and began by asking her how she thought she would build the festival when she arrived at the BFI.

“It’s an interesting question, I don’t know how much is personal, and how much is responding to the terrific opportunity. I’ve come into the festival at a time when it’s very strong, it has a very good international reputation and has gone from strength and strength in recent years. I’ve been able to look at it and see how to take it to the next level. That’s been the compelling driver for me. The four significant changes we’ve made this year have come from that drive. Taking a vibrant, successful festival and broadening it out, making it more accessible and increasing its presence on the international stage.”

The international stage is important, not least as London falls late in the festival calendar with Toronto and Venice in thunder-stealing proximity – was it difficult to build the programme with regards to this factor?

No, the festival has got a very strong position in relation to its calendar spot. It’s become important in terms of the gala premieres and the international awards season campaign period. So it has a logical place. Most of the sales agents and distributors are very mindful of that and very keen to ensure their films are considered in that mix. It’s been interesting coming from the Sydney Film festival, a June festival, which was very influenced by Cannes so you’re right to point out that the year-long calendar has its rhythms and logic in that way.

Given that the festival is generally seen as more of a public festival did the relative lack of film market presence affect your choices?

The festival’s history is entirely as a public festival and over the recent years it has introduced more of an industry programme to its mix. So, in parallel with the public offering we have a substantial industry offer, along with the premieres, and mainly European premieres, so there is a lot of interest from international sales agents and from buyers here. One section of our industry programme is matchmaking sales agents with local buyers. So, it might not be apparent in terms fo the public aspect of the festival, there is a seething underbelly of industry activity. And given the BFI’s expanded role you’re going to see that increase, and we’re going to see how to develop the industry aspects of the London Film Festival going forward given the BFI now has a much broader remit.

You’ve stepped into the BFI at an important time, did you find it  a confident industry or one still finding its feet?

I’ve been involved in the industry for many years and have a great respect for the people and the films which are developed here. It’s a very interesting time to arrive, just as the Film Policy review was released and it was an exhilarating time. It felt like an industry that might not have been necessarily galvanised in all of its intentions but that was absolutely galvanised in terms of wanting to shape a future for the industry. There was robust and dynamic discussion around that and that fed into the ideas around hat might we do now with the festival, what our initiatives might be.

When the line up was announced there was some surprise around which films which weren’t playing, however there is the sense that the LFF was trying something different – do you think it harms the festival to not screen the more ‘obvious’ films?

There are many things that influence which films come into the festival, but what I would hope is communicated by our new programme structures is a real desire to see a festival that is surprising and playful and is curated with an integrity but that it’s also reaching out and becoming more accessible. That was our focus and aim.

Are there any longer-term plans for the festival you can share with us?

Very excited to see how the changes, the taking of the opening film (Frakeneweenie) out to 30 screens across the country for example, likewise making other events available across the country and giving people the chance to experience the energy of the festival but in their local cinemas. I’m excited to determine if taking the festival out to new venues in more boroughs across London is taken up, is it getting people excited. This year the focus has been on initiatives that are about how we broaden and develop the audience, next year we’re very much going to be looking at our industry programme and our education programme.

The 56th London Film Festival begins this Wednesday. Find out all you need to know right here, then get stuck in.