The UK industry may be in a state of upheaval but the programme of the 54th BFI London Film Festival (today through Oct 28) underlines the scope and quality of UK film-making. Geoffrey Macnab reports

These are turbulent times in the UK film industry. But as the debate over the future of public film financing continues to rage in the wake of the decision to axe the UK Film Council, the organisers of the BFI London Film Festival seem remarkably unperturbed by the imminent disappearance of its principal funder.

“We’re just carrying on. The biggest risk we all take at a time of churn is not sorting ourselves out quickly enough,” says Amanda Nevill, director of the British Film Institute (BFI). “The great thing about the London Film Festival is that it’s run by the BFI and the BFI is going to have a stronger and more direct relationship with government. The London Film Festival is a very significant part of what we do and I hope we can protect it from any of the fallout or churn that is going on. I expect to do so.”

The LFF currently has a budget of $9.5m (£6.1m). Last year, the festival received the first $1.4m (£900,000) of the $2.8m (£1.8m) it is being given over three years through the UK Film Council’s Film Festival Fund. This year, it will receive a further $1.1m (£700,000), with the final $312,000 (£200,000) to be drawn down in 2011. By taking the bulk of the money up front the aim, as artistic director Sandra Hebron puts it, was to “drive more investment in the festival”. A year on, the policy appears to be working: this summer, American Express signed a multi-year partnership with the BFI and Hebron says the festival has exceeded its sponsorship targets.

The extra money has also allowed the LFF to increase its ambition: last year saw the introduction of new prizes, an exclusive awards event, an increased number of press conferences and more foreign journalists in attendance. The idea was also that London would stage more glitzy red carpet world premieres along the lines of Frost/Nixon, which had its first screening at the LFF in 2008, and Fantastic Mr Fox and Nowhere Boy, which opened and closed last year’s edition.

However, the 2010 programme is lacking major world premieres. This year’s opening and closing films, Never Let Me Go and 127 Hours (whose director Danny Boyle will receive a BFI fellowship at the LFF) screened at Toronto and Telluride. “Being able to secure world premieres in those major slots is still something that is an aspiration,” Hebron says. “However, we have to marry that every year with the desire to screen the best films we can in those [Gala] slots.”

Hebron accepts the importance of Toronto for positioning a movie in the North American market. Nonetheless, she argues that London provides the best possible “snapshot” of inter­national production across the year.

The emphasis of this year’s festival is very much on British talent. The bright young stars of Never Let Me Go — Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield — will be providing some homegrown glamour on opening night and the festival is full of British fare. There are British docs, new features from old-timers, and a host of films from promising new British directors.

“The more I talk about it, the more exceptional I realise the British selection is, both in terms of its breadth and its quality,” Hebron enthuses, citing documentaries such as Kim Longinotto’s Pink Saris and Lucy Walker’s Waste Land as well as fiction features such as The King’s Speech and experimental work like Patrick Keiller’s Robinson In Ruins.

Noting the paradox that British film-making is currently flourishing in spite of the turmoil in the British film industry as a whole, Hebron says:

“Out of some form of crisis can come great film creativity. If you look at Argentina, when there was that massive economic collapse [in 2001], Argentine cinema was never more vibrant.”

Competition for titles

Major titles that premiered at other festivals which are screening at LFF include Palme d’Or winner Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods And Men and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.

In any given year, there will be films that “get away” as Hebron puts it.

Rowan Joffe’s Brighton Rock (which world premiered in Toronto and is reportedly being given a subsequent premiere in Brighton by distributors Optimum) and Francois Ozon’s crowd-pleaser Potiche (yet to secure a UK distributor at the time of the programme announcement) are among the titles that slipped out of the LFF’s grasp this year.  However, Hebron is still confident that the festival showreel of clips shown at the programme launch was “one of the strongest ever,” and points out that she and her programmers pick fewer than one in 10 of the films that they see.

Optimum may not be showing Brighton Rock at the festival but the company’s Submarine is screening, and managing director Danny Perkins is enthusiastic about the event. “It’s a great time of year to set up a film for the awards season,” he says.

But whatever its strengths as a platform for autumn and early 2011 releases, or as a place to position films for award campaigns, the LFF still isn’t generally an event at which producers expect to find distributors for their films. As Rebecca O’Brien, producer of Ken Loach’s Route Irish, says: “You wouldn’t really go to London to sell your film.” She describes it as more a “film-watcher’s festival” than a business festival.

Nonetheless, O’Brien is clearly delighted with the festival berth for Route Irish. “One of the problems for us is that we can always get noticed in other countries. We find it much more difficult to get noticed here. Being in London gives us that little opportunity,” says O’Brien. A UK distributor is expected to be announced shortly for the film, which is sold by Wild Bunch and premiered at Cannes.

Loach will also give the LFF’s second keynote industry address. The inaugural speech, given last year by Focus Features CEO James Schamus on ‘Lessons on Storytelling from the Department of Homeland Security’, was cited by many as a highlight of the festival. Loach is expected to be equally provocative.

Even without big world premieres, the LFF is continuing to target the international press and there will be plenty of talent in London for the festival. Alongside the press conferences for Gala titles, the LFF will be holding 90 or so press screenings. “People will still want to come into London and will find plenty of new things to write about,” Hebron says. With 197 features and over 100 shorts in the programme, there will be a lot to see. Meanwhile, festival organisers are expecting junkets to be held for films including Black Swan, Conviction and The Kids Are All Right. Long-time London favourite George Clooney won’t be in town for the screening of The American but director Anton Corbijn is expected.

And given the competition between UK national newspapers, the festival may secure more widespread coverage from the British media now that The Times is no longer its title sponsor.

London Film Festival: Industry Office

The London Film Festival’s industry office has been building up the festival’s industry activities since 2004 when Film London, in conjunction with the London Development Agency, provided extra funding to the office.

“In 2004 we started up the Industry Screenings so that people could buy and sell films that are within the festival programme,” says industry development manager Nigel Cross.

The screenings will be going ahead as normal this year, despite the office having to cope with a 25% cut in its budget, which is now around $70,000 (£45,000). Held Oct 18-21, they will showcase around 40 films without UK distribution or sales agent representation. “We pick what we think are strong titles that have a chance of getting a UK distribution deal,” Cross says.

In all, 25 sales agents have been invited, and Bac Films, Films Boutique and Visit Films will be in town. Mary Davies, buyers and sellers facilitator, is also hoping to lure such big sellers as Bavaria, Coach 14, Match Factory, TrustNordisk, Wild Bunch and Celluloid Dreams to London.

Sales agents attending the LFF highlight the industry office’s Meet The Buyer event — where they have short, sharp meetings with UK distributors and producers — as “something very exceptional” (in the words of UMedia’s managing director and founder Frédéric Corvez) and as a “model” of its kind (according to Anais Clanet,  head of sales, Wide Management).

There will also be the usual mix of networking and other events, among them a masterclass by Kim Longinotto, Ken Loach’s keynote speech, the Think-Shoot-Distribute training programme backed by Skillset and the Power To The Pixel cross-media forum.

World Premieres at the London Film Festival 2010

The 11 world premieres at this year’s LFF may not have the immediate marquee appeal of titles like Frost/Nixon or Fantastic Mr Fox but there is growing evidence of London’s effectiveness as a launchpad for new British work.

Previous films unveiled at the LFF, such as Stephen Kijak’s Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (a world premiere in 2006), have gone on to have impressive festival careers on the back of initial London screenings.

This year’s world premieres are primarily British films, of which several are documentaries. “We give documentaries a much harder time than we give any other type or genre of films,” says LFF programmer Michael Hayden. “The work we do show has to be exceptional.”

Music, sport and politics are all foregrounded this year. Hannah Rothschild’s Mandelson: The Real PM?, an access-all-areas documentary about political fixer Peter Mandelson, provoked headlines this summer with reports that Mandelson had prevented Rothschild screening footage at the UK’s Hay Festival. But Rothschild says the reason the footage wasn’t shown was to keep the film, backed by BBC Storyville, fresh for London. “It seemed silly to whip up a lot of interest then. [The decision not to screen the footage at Hay] was not nearly as Machiavellian as it seemed at the time.”

Danny O’Connor’s Upside Down: The Creation Records Story, is about Alan McGee’s celebrated record label which championed bands from Oasis to The Jesus and Mary Chain.

The festival is hoping that McGee and Mandelson — two personalities who are bound to pique media curiosity — will attend the LFF screenings.

Another music-themed title is Chris Hall and Mike Kerry’s The Ballad Of Mott The Hoople, about the reunion of the band best known for their anthem All The Young Dudes.

Meanwhile, Stevan Riley’s Fire In Babylon (produced by Passion Pictures, whose credits include One Day In September) is about the all-conquering West Indies cricket team of the 1970s and 1980s. Hayden points out that this is far more than just another sports documentary: “It tells a really, really exciting story,” he says of the film, which is about music, politics and the struggle for black equality as well as about the cricketing feats of Viv Richards, Michael Holding and co.

Among the dramatic features receiving a world premiere is Brian Welsh’s In Our Name (picked up for UK distribution by Artificial Eye). The film is about a young female soldier back in Britain after a tour of duty in Iraq.

Also receiving a world premiere in London is Lola Doillon’s In Your Hands. The French thriller, starring Kristin Scott Thomas, is sold internationally by Paris-based Elle Driver.

London’s Production Finance Market

The London Film Festival may lack a formal market but one event that does attract key industry figures to town is the Film London Production Finance Market (PFM). Running October 20-21 this year, the PFM aims to connect producers with financiers in what project manager Angus Finney calls “the hard end of the business”. This isn’t a talking shop, but is intended as an event which can kick-start features into production. “Producers who want to be exposed to more commercial kinds of financiers [realise] the PFM is the place to go,” he says.

This year, as it takes a more international perspective, the event has received additional funding from the MEDIA programme and has set up a new partnership with France’s Ile de France Film Commission that will see up to five French producers attending. Around 60 production companies are expected to attend, with average budgets of projects being presented at around $5.2m (€4m). Finney says the market is becoming “distinctly European” in its approach and is attracting European as well as British producers. Warp X, Aria and Ruby Films are among the British production outfits attending. The projects at the PFM are all expected to have a script, director attached and a financing draft. In other words, the emphasis is on projects that are packaged, not on films at an early stage of development.

“[The PFM] is doing something that the British and international production community and the international financing community want,” Adrian Wootton, chief executive of Film London, says of an event whose budget has stayed stable in spite of the upheavals in British public financing. “This is not a parochial Little England thing. It really is an international marketplace.”

The PFM is budgeted at around $234,000 (£150,000). Recent projects that have passed through the PFM include Jim Loach’s Oranges And Sunshine and Bigas Luna’s Second Origin.

Jonathan Cavendish’s outfit Caveman Films was offered equity financing by Max Lewinsohn’s Rubicon International after a meeting at the PFM in 2007.

Although Caveman didn’t take up the offer, the two companies are planning to work together. Cavendish is a champion of the event, praising its organisation and the quality of its attendees. “The Production Finance Market is a great event; well run, you meet good people and I’m looking forward to taking several films this year,” he says.

The standalone event is presented “in association with the LFF” and this year it also hosts a case study of Benedek Fliegauf’s LFF title Womb, with the director and producer Roman Paul of Berlin’s Razor Films.