This year’s BFI London Film Festival will be the last for festival director Tricia Tuttle. She talks to Screen about five years in the hot seat — a wild ride as she overcame unexpected challenges to deliver her strategic vision.

Tricia Tuttle

Source: Dave J Hogan / Getty Images

Tricia Tuttle

Nobody accepts the directorship of an international film festival to lead a quiet life, but the five years for Tricia Tuttle leading BFI London Film Festival (LFF) have proved more than eventful. The loss of flagship venue Odeon Leicester Square for major refurbishment in 2018 (Tuttle’s first year at the helm) was then followed by its reopening, but with half the seating capacity — creating headaches for the festival in terms of audience and budget.

Then came Covid-19, yielding a severely slimmed-down, mostly virtual event in 2020. For 2021, the LFF returned to a physical-led iteration, but planning the festival while the pandemic raged meant rolling the dice on the vast Royal Festival Hall Southbank as the new home for galas and special presentations — a pricey venue hire that would only make economic sense if the virus was held in check and audiences flooded back.

However, if anyone imagines this series of unexpected challenges lies behind Tuttle’s decision to make LFF 2022 her last, the North Carolina-born festival director is quick to clarify. In the first place, she says, when she accepted the BFI festivals director role, she always felt five years as director of both LFF and the annual LGBTQ+ event Flare was the right length of service — especially since she had also served five years as deputy to her predecessor Clare Stewart. But also, having moulded the LFF into the shape she wanted and delivering on a set of strategic goals makes Tuttle feel it is the right moment to step aside.

“A five-year commitment felt right — for personal reasons, because I know how intense it is, having worked as the deputy head, to ride that lightning bolt for that long, and particularly because we also run Flare, it’s super intense,” she says. “And I believe in cultural renewal. It’s important that festivals renew and change and reflect cultural moments and film moments — and you can’t do that if the same people are running them all the time. You want them to be a laboratory for ideas and invention, and it’s important to make space for new ideas and new people.

“But also, I wouldn’t be leaving right now, I would hang on for a couple more years, if I didn’t feel like we’ve been able, despite the pandemic, to [deliver on] the five-year strategy. We are delivering and we see those results.”

Those strategic goals for Tuttle included expanding to incorporate “immersive and [TV] series programming, which we’ve done”. Another was to “create many more points of access for audiences without having to pay, so it’s our LFF For Free programme”. As she explains, “What we’ve seen over a few years is that the people who come to that are younger audiences, more diverse audiences, and audiences outside of London engaging with the free short films we have online. So it’s bringing the audiences we want to bring to the festival. It’s working, it really is.”

Finally, “The third plank of development was to try to bring more international [industry] people to the festival, for a very specific reason — to develop the festival as a space to build collaborations for future projects, and shine a spotlight on the great creative talent in the UK.”

Dovetailing with developing new audiences has also been — since the 2020 edition — a regional expansion, partnering with 10 UK venues that can book up to 14 key titles from the programme. “We’ve shifted the overall make-up,” says Tuttle. “In 2019, we had around 600 screenings, and almost all of them were in London. Last year, about a third of our screenings were outside of London — we did 180 screenings outside London of festival films.”

Meanwhile, Tuttle is confident for the 2022 edition. “Ticket sales are great. Audiences are interested, we have loads of filmmakers coming, lots of great world premieres. I feel like the festival’s in great shape. There’s a great team surrounding me who deliver that as well, and they’re going to be there to [support] whoever takes my role.”

Established format

LLF 21 at Royal Festival Hall

Source: Millie Turner

LLF 21 at Royal Festival Hall

As Tuttle acknowledged to Screen this time last year, the festival model she had pieced together for 2021 did represent a calculated risk for the BFI (British Film Institute), but it was one that she hoped would create a path for the future — with 161 features, slimmed down from the pre-pandemic total of 229 in 2019, augmented by eight TV episodic works, and the immersive LFF Expanded strand.

The slimming of the programme was a curatorial choice, and so the 2022 edition looks very similar in shape and format to 2021, including 167 features this time around. There are tweaks and evolutions but after four years of continual reinvention, Tuttle is happy to be placing her focus on content, not format.

Royal Festival Hall, which this year provides a venue for 26 of the highest-profile titles, was judged a success in 2021. For many years, the festival had been on the hunt for “a big, permanent home for our galas and special presentations”, says Tuttle. And the Royal Festival Hall hire fee, she adds, is not dissimilar in cost to the purpose-built pop-up venue at Embankment Gardens, which formed part of the LFF venue mix from 2016 to 2019. The bigger capacity at Royal Festival Hall means the festival can sell more tickets, as well as allocate a portion of community tickets and £5 ($5.40) tickets for under-25s. “We couldn’t do that when we had to allocate for our sponsors and filmmakers, and then there were a few tickets left for ticket buyers. It gives us more capacity to do the kind of audience development and outreach that we want to do on the galas as well [as other parts of the programme].”

Last year, Screen heard complaints about — and experienced itself — issues with the sound quality at Royal Festival Hall, which seemed to vary depending on seating location and the sound mix of the film. “Totally, we were aware,” says Tuttle. “The Royal Festival Hall, it looks incredible and in many places it also sounds beautiful. We had filmmakers last year saying their film looked and sounded better than it had anywhere.

“But we did identify quickly that there were triangles particularly in that front section of the cinema that were getting a lot of reverb from the side. We also heard loud and clear at the end of the festival that people liked the venue but they were not happy about the sound. So we’ve worked on that, we’ve been working with our sound specialists [from various companies]. Other distributors have used the venue for their premieres; we’ve learned from their experiences and we are doing some work this year around draping and sound baffling to help with that.”

Royal Festival Hall has received another recent vote of confidence: in September, Bafta announced the venue will be the new home for its film awards, shifting from the Royal Albert Hall.

Despite the sound issues, Tuttle feels that finally solving the LFF’s gala venue conundrum has helped the conversation with studios and streamers over titles, including a number of high-profile world premieres: Netflix’s Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio, Irish animation house Cartoon Saloon’s My Father’s Dragon, and, biggest of all, LFF opening night gala Roald Dahl’s Matilda The Musical, from producer Working Title and UK distributor Sony. “It will take a number of years, but I think it’s had an impact on the films we’re able to secure because big films and big filmmakers want to be in that space as well,” says Tuttle.

She acknowledges the LFF has always been first and foremost an audience festival, with a best-of-the-fests programming strategy. “We don’t go after a world premiere for world premiere’s sake. We don’t want to fight against other festivals to get world premieres off of them, but we would love to be in a place where particularly British filmmakers feel like this is a good home for launching their films. That would help us with those long-term aims of building the festival as an international nexus, where if you want to work with the UK you can come and meet interesting filmmakers, all the producers who you might want to work with are here, and get that rich sense of industry around the festival.”

Jay-Z and director Jeymes Samuel at LFF

Source: Neil Mockford / GC Images

Jay-Z and director Jeymes Samuel at LFF

Few who attended the world premiere of Jeymes Samuel’s The Harder They Fall as opening night gala of LFF last year would dispute this was a high-impact event — and the attendance of producer Jay-Z with spouse Beyoncé didn’t hurt. For Tuttle, the London launch helped establish the Netflix title’s UK credentials. Though a juried category, it is notable Samuel went on to win the outstanding British debut Bafta.

Tweaks and changes

One difference with this year’s LFF is the digital offer, which runs October 14-23 — barely overlapping the physical festival, ending a week after it closes, and with 21 features and 15 shorts on offer. The digital programme began in 2020, when the physical component of the festival was severely inhibited by the pandemic. “We want to keep delivering it because we create access for the whole of the UK,” says Tuttle. “But there are lots of challenges, and among them is that rights-holder enthusiasm is going down. Bigger distributors want to preserve exclusivity for theatrical — they only did it in 2020 because there was no other way to get their films to audiences. Smaller distributors are worried about not being booked into cinemas or are concerned about piracy.”

The other issue is that the numbers are not huge. While 2020 generated 26,000 digital ticket sales, last year dropped to around 6,000, while the costs to run the platform remained about the same. “We want to make sure that, while it’s important in terms of access, we’re also not losing loads of money trying to do something that would just be pushing uphill on it,” says Tuttle. “So we wanted to change the model to see if we could create its own moment. I think audiences don’t really understand why you don’t have Spencer and Belfast and Last Night In Soho on the platform. [By separating it] we are trying to communicate holistically about what’s there — discovery titles, international work and work we need to spend a bit more time with.”

Tuttle acknowledges that LFF Expanded — which contains immersive art and extended reality (XR) — is expensive to mount, relative to the capacity of audiences able to experience it — although they have managed to increase physical capacity by 50% this year. “Where we’ve gone with Expanded in just three years, I couldn’t be more thrilled,” she says. “We’ve created a platform that has international recognition from the immersive community, that has grown from nothing to something that feels rich and culturally and industrially important.”

Talk of costs naturally leads to consideration of future budget challenges, with BFI CEO Ben Roberts recently acknowledging that UK government support — via the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and the National Lottery — for next year’s LFF and beyond remains unconfirmed at this time. The festival is currently funded roughly one-third ticket sales, one-third sponsorship and one-third public subsidy — so a loss of the latter chunk would be a hefty blow.

Tuttle first wants to make clear the budget challenge and her decision to exit “are not related at all”. She also downplays the current drama. “I’ve been here for 10 years, and we’ve been here several times. It hasn’t necessarily been public, because we haven’t published a major strategy at the same time, but public-funding renewal is something that every major cultural institution has to do, and we’re just in that cycle right now. The board and the exec are not worried, as I think Ben articulated, and I’m not either, because I’ve been in that position [before].”

Tuttle will not be leaving right away after the festival, and will stay until at least the end of 2022. While senior film programmer Michael Blyth concentrates more on delivering Flare 2023, Tuttle can focus on LFF strategy and planning so that “when the new person comes in, they can hit the ground running”.

By announcing her exit now, the BFI can start the recruitment process early. “I’ve seen lots of festivals recruit new directors late, with no-one in post. You don’t have any fat in the year for the LFF; we start talking to rights-holders in January, and building a picture of what the year is going to look like and what films are going to land. That work has to be done while Flare is on. So I’ll help in any way I can, while leaving space and staying loose for the new person to come in and make their mark.”