The BFI London Film Festival (Oct 10-21) enters a new era in 2012, with Clare Stewart at the helm and a focus on engaging audiences.

From striking international debut films to a red-carpet appearance by The Rolling Stones, the 56th BFI London Film Festival (LFF) aims to offer something for everyone. Indeed, audience engagement is at the heart of the LFF’s first edition under the leadership of Clare Stewart.

Stewart is an Australia native who drove up audiences in her last job at the Sydney Film Festival before joining the BFI in October 2011. She has big shoes to fill after the departure of Sandra Hebron, the popular former head of the festival who stepped down in late 2011.

Stewart pays tribute to the festival she inherited which was in great standing, as audiences have increased in recent years. “You want to build a programme that’s going to satisfy the existing audience and also be really attractive to a new audience,” she says.

To that end, Stewart has already made significant changes: the festival has shortened its run from 16 to 12 days, the footprint in London has expanded into venues outside the West End including the Hackney Picturehouse and the Rich Mix in east London, and the Everyman Screen on the Green in north London, in addition to the usual central London cinemas in Leicester Square and at the BFI Southbank. The opening gala, Frankenweenie, will be shown in 30 UK cinemas and American Express gala Crossfire Hurricane will be shown across the UK and also internationally.

Also, Stewart has shaken up the festival sections by adding clearly defined sections for Official Competition, First Feature Competition and Documentary Competition, plus grouping the rest of the programme selections into themes rather than traditional sidebars.

“We have been looking at information about what influences audience choice. People respond more to what the film is about and genre than what stars are in it or reviews,” she notes. Stewart introduced similar programming moods in Sydney, resulting in audience attendance growing by 31%.

The thematic clusters, and a representative gala for each, are Love (Amour), Debate (The Pervert’s Guide To Ideology), Dare (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Laugh (Sightseers), Thrill (Chakravyuh), Cult (A Liar’s Autobiography), Journey (Beyond The Hills) and Family (Ernest & Celestine). The Sonic theme sees a screening of Spike Island. In all, the festival will present 225 features and 111 shorts.

The competitors

The international competition “reflects the festival’s fantastic international profile and also a strong commitment to our audience”, Stewart says. UK films are not segregated but spread across the line-up: in the Official Competition, UK film-makers represented are Michael Winterbottom with Everyday and Sally Potter with Ginger & Rosa. In a year when no women made the cut in Cannes, the LFF boasts four female film-makers in the Competition: Potter, Deepa Mehta, Rama Burshtein and Cate Shortland.

The Documentary Competition, in partnership with the Grierson Trust, includes films such as Sarah Gavron’s Village At The End Of The World, Shola Lynch’s Free Angela And All Political Prisoners, Alex Gibney’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence In The House Of God, Amy Berg’s West Of Memphis and Sébastien Lifshitz’s Les Invisibles.

The First Feature Competition, spearheaded by longtime LFF programmer Michael Hayden, and the Best British Newcomer selections showcase a range of work. “That includes films like My Brother The Devil which has been anticipated since Sundance and also real new discoveries like The Comedian and Shell,” Stewart adds. “With the Best British Newcomer Award, we’ve got some really exciting talent coming up. It was exciting for me to see the responses coming out of Toronto,” she says, pointing to Rowan Athale’s buzzy debut feature Wasteland.

Increased capacity

Last year’s festival already had an occupancy rate of 80%, with the 20% difference mostly for daytime weekday screenings. “We knew we had to change our model to create room for growth,” Stewart says. “By expanding the footprint, we’ve increased the capacity of the festival by 18% and more importantly we’ve increased prime-time capacity by 40%. The new sessions in the new venues are all evening and weekend slots, so those sessions are more accessible for the majority of audiences.”

Getting to know London audiences is part of her day-to-day job, as the LFF festival director role is now combined in her post as the BFI’s head of exhibition. “In my expanded role across the LFF and the Southbank’s year-round programme, that means I’m literally with an audience every day,” she says. “That sense of seeing people engaging with the programmes, and how they are engaging, is also very important in thinking about the audience for the festival.”

The LFF will offer 12 world premieres this year, compared to 13 in 2011 and 11 in 2010. Some industry watchers dwell on world premieres, and London will face increased competition for starry launches from Marco Müller’s revamped Rome Film Festival in November, which plans to have 60 world premieres.

Stewart says of the world premiere crop this year: “It is the right level at the moment while we are creating change at the festival. It maintains our international profile. But it’s also really important to remember we’re a public festival.”

The LFF, of course, will also reflect the wider remit for the BFI, which has been the lead body for film since April 2011 after the shuttering of the UK Film Council. Once again, the focus on audiences is key to wider BFI goals.

Stewart notes: “The BFI is announcing its Future Plan in October but one thing we know already is that it’s going to be responding to that very direct headline that came out of the Film Policy Review, which was that, ‘It starts with the audience.’ I think the changes in the programme and how do we go out more widely to attract new audiences, going out across the UK and expanding our footprint in London, all of those imperatives are very much embedded into what that BFI report is responding to.”

Once that BFI Future Plan is revealed, Stewart says the 2013 festival can start to look at more strategy around industry and education.

This year’s industry offerings continue the four initiatives of recent years: Power To The Pixel’s Cross-Media Forum, the Film London-backed Production Finance Market, industry screenings for buyers and sellers, and the talent lab Think-Shoot-Distribute.

“I thought it was appropriate to continue our really strong industry programmes and then look at how we review that going forward from next year,” Stewart adds.

Masterclasses and talks will feature writer Salman Rushdie, music supervisor Ian Neil and production designers David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco.

Clare Stewart’s LFF highlights

Opening Gala - Frankenweenie

“For me to do the European premiere of Frankenweenie on opening night is a no-brainer - it’s such a delightful film-lover’s film in many ways. You can really see Tim Burton working on a pet project, but that also showcases the work of over 200 British craftspeople.”

Closing Gala - Great Expectations

“The closing night gala Great Expectations [directed by Mike Newell] is a very London story and one that really puts British talent on show, as well as capping off a year of Dickens bicentennial celebrations.” 

American Express Gala - Crossfire Hurricane

“I am extremely excited with the Crossfire Hurricane world premiere. It’s directed by Brett Morgen who did The Kid Stays In The Picture, whose incredible savvy is all over this film. It’s such an enthralling documentary [on The Rolling Stones] and incredibly comprehensive given the wealth of material it works with, the picture it creates of not just the band itself and their longevity as a musical group and the relationships between them, but also the extraordinary impact they have had on popular culture through the decades.”

Across the Programme

“I am excited by smaller discoveries as well. One I am particularly fond of, given my Antipodean roots, is Love Story by New Zealand’s Florian Habicht, which is a very playful and charming film. He plays a film-maker within the film, and he goes out on the streets of New York talking to people about the direction the story should take, and then he incorporates that into his script. It’s very, very funny and has that thrill of film-making reverberating all through it.

“You go from something like that to one of my favourite films out of Berlin, which is the beautiful, understated documentary Winter Nomads, which follows two shepherds throughout the winter. It’s an incredibly subtle and beautifully moving film. Also, Rama Burshtein’s Fill The Void is an exceptional, special film.”

London’s Production finance market

Holding its sixth edition in 2012, the UK’s Production Finance Market (PFM) aims to match high-quality international projects with a range of financiers. Films that have been through the PFM include Andrew Adamson’s Mr Pip, Jim Loach’s Oranges And Sunshine and Miranda July’s The Future.

Organised by Film London in association with the BFI London Film Festival, the event takes place October 17-18 at the Hilton London Tower Bridge and has 55 productions, including 16 from the UK, 31 from Europe and two from the US. In addition, 56 financiers are confirmed: 39 from the UK, 14 from Europe, two from the US and one from Canada.

“We have got a good spread of projects from around the world,” says Film London chief executive Adrian Wootton. “And it looks set to build on what we’ve been doing over recent years, which is bringing a very good and committed and interested group of financiers together with strong, viable projects which we vet very, very carefully.” Projects are rigorously selected: they must be from film-makers with a track record, they must have a detailed finance plan and a certain amount of packaging in place - normally at least 30% of the financing - as well as a director attached.

“My experience of running it for the last five years is that financiers don’t want to see films that don’t have a director attached or a script and little elseŠ there needs to be at least indications of cast, even if they’re not attached formally,” says PFM project manager Angus Finney.

Projects have an average budget of $5.2m-$6.5m and the event raises around $5m-$6m of production finance every edition.

The PFM is markedly less UK-centric than when it started, now with only a third of the producers from the UK. The PFM has relationships with Melbourne’s 37 Degrees South Market, Rome’s New Cinema Network, Film Bazaar in Goa, Nordic Co-Production Market in Haugesund, the Ile De France Film Commission and Toronto’s International Financing Forum. It is supported by the MEDIA programme.

Leon Forde