Record LFF ticket sales but who’ll remember 2013?

The BFI has hailed the success of Clare Stewart’s second London Film Festival at the helm, with last year’s record audience attendance being broken, with the figure passing the 150,000 mark for the first time.

Tom Hanks closed the festival with Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks
Tom Hanks closed the festival with Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks

Sandwiched between two Tom Hanks films, the piracy drama Captain Phillips at the start and the Mary Poppins story Saving Mr Banks at the end, more than two hundred feature films from around the world were screened to the public across the capital – and in the case of the opening and closing films, in 50 cinemas across the country.

Getting more people in more cities to see more films is exactly what a film festival should be all about, but while thousands of members of the public will have fond memories to take away from the past few days, will the industry remember LFF 2013? Will the films associated with the festival be featured prominently in the awards season ahead? Will those who write the history of cinema label any of this autumn’s crop with the LFF tag, as they would a Cannes, Sundance or Oscar winner?

The highest profile films were given red carpet gala screenings, attended by leading members of the cast and crew and many of them will be at the very least raking in big box office in the coming weeks and months and many will also find themselves in the running come awards season. Aside from the opening and close night galas, favourites of the festival included Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in the outer-space thriller Gravity, Steve McQueen’s drama 12 Years A Slave, Robert Redford’s solo performance as a stranded sailor in All Is Lost, the new Coen brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s sharp romantic comedy Don Jon and Steve Coogan’s adaptation of the true story of Philomena Lee, the middle aged Irish woman who went in search of the child she was forced to give up to adoption decades earlier.

But many of these films are already associated with previous festivals or will be remembered for their likely box office or future awards success, because unlike most other festivals, where the competition features the crowd-pleasers that will end up in the history books, the BFI has chosen instead to nominate only smaller, artistic films for its competition, ensuring that while no-one will challenge the cinematic prowess of the winner, Pawel Pawlokowski’s Ida, the likelihood is that few people will have the chance to do so anyway, and while the likes of 12 Years A Slave and Inside Llewyn Davis are sure to feature during awards season, the LFF’s winners will soon be forgotten.

London Film Festival programmer Clare Stewart
London Film Festival programmer Clare Stewart

Arguing that the official competition section should be for distinctive and inventive film-making, the BFI’s programming chief Clare Stewart acknowledges that this could just as readily apply to the big films screening in the galas. “But I like the fact that we have this great section that allows us to profile some films that might otherwise slip off the radar,” she enthuses. And while other festivals, such as Cannes, go further and specifically honour particular performances, Stewart insists that she doesn’t want to become over-focused on awards. “I like the simplicity of our awards structure. You don’t want the awards to become the only thing that a festival is about.”

But the problem is that from the point of view of the media, especially in a festival that screens about six times as many films as the more exclusive selections at Cannes, it’s really awards that define it, so despite, or more likely because of Stewart’s artistic integrity, her awards themselves will likely soon be forgotten. In truth, this says more about the fickle nature of the world media than it does about the winners, but we live in the real world and the LFF exists in the same crowded real world.

lff13 pawel french
Best Film winner Pawel Pawlikowski received his award from former Observer critic Philip French

Previous years of the relatively new competition have at least seen Cannes winners, gala screenings and even opening and closing films nominated, but with none of the higher profile films of the festival even getting a mention on awards night this year, few of the world’s media outlets even noticed they were going on. While a handful of organisations covered the red-carpet arrivals, few journalists other than those working for the BFI itself stayed to report on the winners. BBC Radio wasn’t interested in covering the event, arguing that the winners would not resonate with enough of their listeners, while the BBC website led its coverage with the fact that Johnny Depp had presented Sir Christopher Lee with a BFI Fellowship; the honour itself had been announced before the festival had started, so it was only the name “Johnny Depp” that earned the awards ceremony any coverage at all. Perhaps the only place Pawel Pawlikowski’s success will be heralded will be on his own wikipedia page.

It leaves the BFI with a difficult balance to strike. The formal awards ceremony is a relatively new innovation, but if no-one pays any attention, it will never build up a reputation to match those of rival festivals such as Cannes, Venice, Berlin or Toronto. It was a bold move of Stewart’s predecessor Sandra Hebron to try to raise the profile of the awards – and so the festival – but by concentrating on only the smaller films, the efforts could be wasted. A winner of the London Star can not so much claim to have made the Best Film of the Festival, as they can the Best Film of a small list chosen according to specific criteria that rule out the films the rest of the industry – and possibly the public too – will regard as the best.

Cannes has had many more years to work on achieving the right balance between artistic integrity and industry relevance and even now is rightfully accused, from time to time, of being somewhat pretentious, particularly in its more arthouse Un Certain Regard strand. But Cannes premiers feature on the front pages of Britain’s newspapers in a way that Britain’s biggest film festival screenings rarely do. Clare Stewart might argue that she’s not about getting front page coverage for her premiers or indeed her awards, but without the publicity that is generated by this, the London Film Festival will find it harder to attain the status of its rivals and it could become little more than an opportunity for film fans to boast to their friends that they saw Captain Phillips a week before everybody else. Perhaps the LFF should be more about giving film-makers something to brag about rather than the fans.