In her second year heading up the BFI London Film Festival (Oct 9-20), Clare Stewart tells Sarah Cooper about consolidation, competition and LFF’s place in the international calendar.

Clare Stewart seems so comfortable in her role as director of the BFI London Film Festival it is easy to forget this is only her second year in the job.

The former head of Sydney Film Festival took over from Sandra Hebron in 2012, and immediately set about shaking up LFF’s structure ― shortening the festival from 16 to 12 days, expanding its footprint to a number of new London venues, grouping the programme into themed categories and introducing standalone competition sections. As a result, the 2012 edition saw a 13% increase in audience size.

“The festival had reached capacity under Sandra’s excellent direction, and we had to change the model in order to grow it. We were thrilled with the results,” says Stewart, who carried out intensive surveys and vox pops both during and after last year’s festival to get a sense of how audiences were responding to the model, resulting in “really positive feedback”.

“This year it is all about consolidating those changes,” says Stewart, ahead of the 2013 edition that will see 234 features and 134 shorts screen across the UK capital.

‘The role the LFF can play in the awards-season window makes it a unique offering’

Clare Stewart, LFF

As a result, the programme will be broken down into the same thematic clusters as last year, each of which will have its own representative gala screening ― Love (Blue Is The Warmest Colour), Debate (Night Moves), Laugh (Don Jon), Dare (Stranger By The Lake), Thrill (Mystery Road), Cult (Only Lovers Left Alive), Journey (Nebraska), Sonic (We Are The Best!) and Family (Foosball).

Stewart suggests the themed approach helps audiences to access the festival: “Some 33% of attendees last year were first-timers, suggesting that our approach really opened up the festival; 234 films can be terrifying if you can’t find a way in and the research we did really demonstrated that the sections helped people find their way into the programme.”

For the first time this year, shorts and restoration films will also be incorporated into the sections, as opposed to having their own standalone strands, which Stewart hopes will “streamline but also open them up to more audiences”.

At the same time, the festival will keep the standalone competition sections that Stewart introduced in 2012 ― Official Competition, First Feature Competition and Documentary Competition ― following a significant increase last year in both attendees and media attention compared with previous years when they were dispersed across the programme.

“What’s interesting in this age of social media is that the competition structure is having its day again,” says Stewart. “People want to be opinion leaders; they want to be talking about whether the festival director made the right choice; this is all conversation-generating stuff and a festival’s responsibility, as a custodian, is to create as many conversations as we can.”

Premiere positions

While Stewart is opposed to “an overemphasis on world premieres as being the defining factor of a festival”, the number of world premieres has risen from 12 last year to 22 this year, and will include John Noel’s restored The Epic Of Everest, Adam Wimpenny’s Blackwood and Destiny Ekaragha’s Gone Too Far!

Meanwhile, the 13-strong Official Competition line-up ― which includes Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin, John Curran’s Tracks and Clio Barnard’s The Selfish Giant ― is made up of “inspiring, imaginative film-making, films that took my breath away in terms of their very different inventiveness”, says Stewart, who deliberately chose to have a strong presence of European premieres in competition in the form of Abuse Of Weakness, The Double, Ida, Starred Up and Rags And Tatters.

Both the festival’s opening and closing films, Captain Phillips and Saving Mr Banks, together with festival galas including The Invisible Woman, 12 Years A Slave and Jason Reitman’s Labor Day, will also have their European premieres at LFF, a section of the market Stewart is hoping to corner.

Pointing to LFF’s position in the calendar just ahead of the awards-season window and the role LFF screenings have in terms of informing both Bafta and Academy Awards voters (London has the highest concentration of Academy voters outside of Los Angeles), Stewart describes LFF as an “increasingly significant festival for breaking films into Europe.

“That is a great role for the LFF to play, and the combination of our focus on audiences and the role we can play in the awards-season window as a European starting point for a campaign, makes the LFF a unique offering.”

Stewart is also hoping to grow LFF’s industry strand. “Last year was very much focused on audiences. This year is a focus on how we start to really develop on the industry side,” says Stewart, who has been working closely with BFI Film Fund director Ben Roberts to develop an industry strategy across both LFF and the BFI, going forward.

‘In this age of social media, the competition structure is having its day again’

Clare Stewart, LFF

For the first time this year, all media and industry screenings will take place in the same cinema, Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, in response to feedback from press and industry suggesting they would like their screenings consolidated in one easily navigable space. Stewart is also working towards creating more opportunities for film-makers to network with the local industry and media, which, she admits, is a challenge for a metropolitan festival like London.

“It is significantly more challenging than when you are somewhere like Park City for Sundance, where the entire location is mobilised towards the event. We are taking informal steps this year that will lead us to something more structured next year.”

Meanwhile, there are ongoing plans to expand the festival’s regional output, which ties in with the BFI’s recent expansion of its audience network activity, through the setting up of eight regional hubs.

As well as the closing gala being shown simultaneously in cinemas across the UK, many of the festival’s interviews, podcasts and red-carpet events will be available on the newly launched BFI Player, although the films themselves will not. “We are definitely looking at how we do that for next year’s festival,” adds Stewart.

A priority for Stewart, given her combined roles as LFF festival director and BFI’s head of exhibition, is finding a way to bring parts of her annual programme at London’s South Bank into the festival. The Sonic section of LFF for example ― which will include a live performance from film composer Michael Nyman ― is inspired by the Sonic Cinema strand that runs year-round at the Southbank.

“When I came into the role, I inherited great work from two predecessors, one running the festival, one running the Southbank Centre. It’s now about creating an integrated approach to doing those together but still maintaining a clear distinction between the programmes,” says Stewart, who is also keen to see LFF establish a year-round presence in cinemas.

Cross-town traffic

LFF will take place across the same expanded list of London venues as last year, including Hackney Picturehouse and Rich Mix in east London, Ritzy Brixton in south London and Everyman Cinemas’ Screen on the Green in north London.

“We had an extremely high recognition of our increased footprint combined with some fantastic anecdotal feedback, with people saying things like, ‘I’ve never come to the festival before but now you’re at my local cinema,’” says Stewart.

The only new venue this year will be Cineworld Haymarket, which, says Stewart, is partly in preparation for when the Odeon West End closes, potentially later this year, as part of Leicester Square’s renovation work. “We need to shore up our presence in the West End.”

Stewart clearly has her sights set on the long term. One of her ambitions for next year is to introduce an LFF audience award to reflect the quality of films in the gala sections and across the breadth of the festival, not just in official competition. “Winning an audience award does an enormous amount for films, especially ones that don’t have UK distribution. It can be vital in terms of the campaigning of films when they go on to release,” she says.

But as for feeling comfortable in her role, it turns out Stewart may not be quite there yet. “I’ve got a feeling it will be year three when I feel like I’ve really bedded down.”

LFF 2013 industry events

Production Finance Market (October 16-17)

A total of 800 face-to-face meetings between film producers and financiers are expected to take place during this two-day annual event aimed at encouraging new film-finance relationships. The keynote speaker will be Michael Barker, co-president and co-founder of Sony Pictures Classics

Power To The Pixel Cross-Media Forum (October 15-18)

Aimed at bringing together leading international creators, thinkers and practitioners from across the fields of film, TV, interactive, online,mobile, gaming, publishing and live events, the forum will include a conference, two-day finance and co-production event Pixel Market, Pixel Pitch competition and the Think Tank.

Think-Shoot-Distribute (October 14-18)

Some 25 budding film-makers have been selected to take part in this feature-film talent and project development scheme, which runs over five days at The Hospital Club in central London.

LFF keynote speech (October 18)

Alison Owen, producer of LFF’s closing night film Saving Mr Banks, will examine whether cinema can withstand competition from games and online and explore what makes the form of the two-hour dramatic experience so unique.

Also on the agenda

  • The launch of the BFI International Strategy, which outlines the key international markets identified as priorities for UK film, chaired by the BFI’s Isabel Davis.
  • It All Starts With the Audience: exploring how audiences across Europe are choosing to watch film. Moderated by Channel 4 News correspondent Katie Razzall.
  • Developing Films For An International Market: in association with the UK MEDIA desk, a panel of European producers will share tips on developing projects with international appeal.
  • The BFI Distribution Fund will reveal the results of innovative funded projects that have eschewed traditional release models and found new ways to bring films to audiences.
  • The BFI Film Fund will present a number of opportunities to meet and discuss the current landscape of film development and production in the UK and beyond.