There is a fierce debate about the future and the identity of The Times BFI London Film Festival (LFF). Stewart Till, chairman of the UK Film Council (UKFC) has made no secret of his desire to see the LFF transformed into a 'bigger, louder festival' with 'more impact on the worldwide film stage'.
Meanwhile other influential voices are lobbying for the event to remain much the way it is: a festival that cherry-picks the best in world cinema. This year, the festival is screening titles from 43 countries as well as experimental and avant-garde programmes and restorations.
Even without the Ukfc backing which may eventually become available through the new Film Festival Fund, the LFF is attracting some major movies as well as stars such as Penelope Cruz, Gwyneth Paltrow and Eva Green, who are all expected to attend this year.
In a major coup, it has secured the world premiere of Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, produced by Working Title, as its opening film as well as the European premiere of Oliver Stone's George W Bush movie, W. 'Film companies are starting to see London can have a reach beyond the UK, into Europe and internationally,' claims LFF artistic director Sandra Hebron.
Still, there is considerable debate as to what the LFF actually offers the industry. One UK producer suggests that unless your film is chosen to open or close the festival or is selected as one of the major galas, a berth in London is not much help for launching the movie.
UK distributors suggest the festival is useful for gauging press reactions to smaller films which critics may have missed. Tessa Ross, controller, film and drama at Film4, trumpets the LFF as an excellent platform for such Film4 movies as Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire (this year's closing film), Steve McQueen's Hunger and Michael Winterbottom's Genova. 'Slumdog will be playing to a crowd that will probably have caught some of the fantastic buzz from Toronto so it should be a huge treat and celebration of the end of the festival,' says Ross.
Slumdog producer Christian Colson agrees the festival is a 'terrific platform' for the film, which is due to be released in the UK in January following its roll-out in the US on November 18 via Fox Searchlight. 'Coming off the back of Toronto, which was a great place to launch it, the timing (of London) is perfect.'
The LFF has a relatively small budget for an event of its size - this year it is being mounted for around $7.2m (£4.1m). Nigel Cross, the festival's industry development manager, is working on a budget of $105,000 (£60,000) - a figure that has not risen since 2004. 'It's frustrating in that we could be doing a lot more,' says Cross.
Nonetheless, some prominent buyers and sellers will be in town. Industry attendees this year will include Charlotte Mickie of Maximum Films, Clay Epstein of the Little Film Company, and representatives from many European firms (among them, Roissy, Films Distribution, Celluloid Dreams, The Match Factory, TrustNordisk and Rezo). Buyers will have the chance to see world premieres of new UK films such as Richard Jobson's New Town Killers and Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson. The festival's industry screenings, now in their fifth year, will showcase 42 titles available for the UK as well as seven on which world sales rights are available.
Business is done, with some smaller films finding sales agents and distributors. Joanna Hogg's Unrelated, a world premiere and winner of the Fipresci prize at last year's festival, is an example of a small UK movie 'discovered' via the LFF. The film was recently released in the UK by New Wave Films to enthusiastic reviews. 'It didn't have a distributor (when it screened in London) but it was given very fine attention,' says producer Barbara Stone.
'It's a particularly good place to launch a film that was made in London,' reflects producer Jeremy Thomas on his decision to bring Gerald McMorrow's urban fantasy Franklyn to the LFF. Thomas, a former chairman of the BFI, is a firm supporter of the festival and is withering in his assessment of those pushing to make London a bigger, glitzier festival.
'I'm a little confused by this 'red carpet' idea. The festival does a very good job on its limited resources, with wonderful films being shown every year. All it needs is a little more money.'
Alongside the industry screenings, the festival is organising debates on issues relevant to the industry. Michel Reilhac, director of Arte France Cinema, Film4's Peter Carlton and BBC Films' Jane Wright will take part in 'The Risk Business', a discussion on whether public broadcasters have an obligation to make feature films and, if so, what kind. 'UK and India: the shape of things to come' will explore the UK-India co-production treaty. A special debate, 'Cross Country: does regional production now carry the baton for British film'', will look at the many regional film-making initiatives springing up across the UK. Meanwhile, Film London's Production Finance Market (October 20-21) will bring together UK producers and international financiers.
The challenge for the LFF remains delivering a major festival in a capital city when the festival has such limited resources. 'It's incredibly difficult. Everybody works long hours. People do it largely because they love it,' says Hebron.