In her decade as head of the BFI London Film Festival, Sandra Hebron has helped raise its international profile and made it an important showcase for films heading into the awards season.

This month’s BFI London Film Festival (LFF) marks the end of an era as Sandra Hebron, its artistic director for the past 10 years, steps down. Clare Stewart, who was director of the Sydney Film Festival, takes over responsibility for the LFF in 2012 as part of her role as BFI head of exhibition.

In the past decade, the LFF has been transformed from a mainly public festival to one which now commands the attention of the international industry and plays a crucial part in distributors’ UK launch and awards campaigns.

“London used to be a catch-all for the other festivals, but now it feels like a proper platform to garner attention,” says Revolution Films’ producer Andrew Eaton, who is screening two British titles at the LFF — the opening title 360 and Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna. “In the past, you didn’t even know it was on, but the city and the media have completely changed the way they regard it. Toronto is more of a market, but London is more of a showcase.”

Around the same time Hebron took over at the LFF, the festival crept forward a couple of weeks in line with the film BAFTA’s repositioning ahead of the Oscars. This put the LFF in a more favourable slot within the awards window, enabling it to attract bigger titles.

‘The festival has a responsibility to the British film industry to provide a good platform for its work’

Sandra Hebron

“Every time we do talent events as part of London, we will be doing BAFTA screenings as well,” says Danny Perkins, CEO UK of StudioCanal. The company will be screening Rampart, The Awakening and W.E. — which will be attended by Madonna — at the LFF this year. “It’s nice to know the festival is so well organised that it can handle a star of that level,” adds Perkins.

In 2009, the UK Film Council’s $2.8m (£1.8m) injection of funding over three years took the budget to its current annual level of $9.4m (£6m). (It is not yet clear what the budget for the 2012 event will be.) The investment gave the festival the ability to step up a gear, but it was Hebron who realised the ambition, delivering a significant global event, introducing a standalone awards ceremony, more press conferences, Q&As and industry events, and bringing in a greater number of foreign journalists.

And this year’s programme certainly reflects the strength of independent world cinema. The 204-strong feature line-up includes high-profile titles from Venice and Toronto such as George Clooney’s The Ides Of March, Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, Roman Polanski’s Carnage, and Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights.

Fernando Meirelles’ 360 and Terence Davies’ The Deep Blue Sea will book-end the festival.

“Picking the opening and closing films is always the hardest part of the job, because so much attention gets focused on those nights,” Hebron admits. “But I’m really happy this year to have films from two film-makers who I personally have a huge amount of admiration and respect for.”

But both screened first at Toronto and while Hebron admits it would be “naive to think that any festival could be exempt from thinking about premiere status”, she points to the LFF’s position as a public festival as enabling her to “choose the films which we think are strongest or most appropriate, rather than having a reliance on world premieres”.

“Do audiences mind that a film has already screened in Venice? I think not. All it means is that there is a higher level of awareness for that film,” she says.

Last year ticket sales hit a record 132,000, up 20% from 10 years ago. For many distributors, the LFF is a key part of their local campaigns. UK distributor Momentum Pictures will be screening two films at the LFF, Steve McQueen’s Shame and Morten Tyldum’s Headhunters. For Momentum’s president Xavier Marchand, the festival provides an invaluable opportunity to gauge UK audience reactions in the third biggest box-office market in the world.

Shame may arrive with a high profile among journalists and within the industry, but not necessarily with a UK audience,” says Marchand, of the film which opens in the UK on January 13.

“We love London as a launch-pad for films that need long campaigns and where we want to elevate their profile, because the LFF gets a lot of coverage in the UK.”

And it’s UK films where the programme really comes into its own, with LFF’s New British Cinema section featuring interesting new films from rising local film-makers. They include Tinge Krishnan’s Junkhearts, Strawberry Fields, the second film from Screen Star Of Tomorrow Frances Lea, and Wild Bill, which is a breezy crime caper from actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher. Fletcher describes a slot at the LFF “as making all the difference to a small film like ours”. The film received warm reviews from its San Sebastian world premiere.

“The festival has a responsibility to the British film industry to provide a good platform for its work,” says Hebron. “But I’m always mindful that the British films have to compete in the same way the international ones do.”

Still, there are always the ones that got away — or simply weren’t ready in time — as was the case with Phyllida Law’s hotly anticipated The Iron Lady. “We’re not scheduled to finish the film until November 10, but if we had been [ready] LFF would have been the perfect launch pad,” says Pathé UK chief Cameron McCracken.

Just before Hebron becomes engulfed in a two-week whirl of screenings, events and parties, and ahead of her new career as a psychotherapist, she pauses briefly to reflect on her decade at the head of the London Film Festival. “I always wanted to make London more inclusive, but also a festival where film-makers feel their work will be really valued. I hope that’s how they feel,” she says.