London’s Leicester Square was all but cordoned off in its entirety this week as the London International Film Festival (LIFF) opened and two theatres played the world premiere of Fantastic Mr Fox – this has happened before, of course, the first time with the first Daniel Craig Bond, Casino Royale.

But LIFF has never commanded that much attention before; this year it feels very razzamataz. George Clooney, no less.

It seems like mere seconds ago since the LFF used to breeze along without much notice or noise; a best-of-the-fests affair with genteel film-maker teas for the press (which still take place). Look back a decade and it really was quite a moth-eaten affair, “headquartered” in the back rooms of the old Berners Hotel; earnest but a little half-hearted.

Last year was the first time LFF blasted off with a high-wattage world premiere – Frost / Nixon – and this year it has more cash and bigger aspirations, more galas, stars, an industry screenings programme, education initiatives for London’s children.

It’s a sign that a festival can turn itself around very quickly into a headline-maker with the right support, good contacts, and serious-minded programming. (All this glitz sadly helps disguise the fact that it’s a mixed year indeed for UK cinema, with London’s few premieres following on from Edinburgh’s disappointing programme. London’s first, 44-Inch Chest, is hopefully not an indication of what’s left to come.)

Ready, steady, opening

It is worth noting, however, that a good opening film can really lift a festival’s spirits – while a bad opening film hurts the film more than it does the festival.

In recent years, titles have shied away from the high-profile opening slots at Cannes, Berlin, or Venice, wary of irrationally high expectations from an eager critical corps.

And closing films have become throwaways, always out of Competition, screening when the industry has packed its cases and gone, forgotten titles set for a dusty drawer somewhere. Think of this year’s closers at the major festivals – yes, you see my point.

So, following on from last year’s Frost / Nixon, we have Fantastic Mr Fox as London’s opener, an adorable title which might possibly – it’s true – have been dismissed by “serious” critics at Cannes or Venice as being too lightweight and would certainly not have won an award. Yet this is surely destined for the Awards trail in the animated category, where it will give Up a run for its money.

And London is closing with UK artist Sam Taylor Wood’s debut Nowhere Boy (pictured). Will it carry on the festival’s momentum, end things on a high? By the time the reviews come out, LIFF will have wrapped for 2009 having handed out its inaugural awards. Will they mean much  – artistic director Sandra Hebron has certainly secured a serious jury. How will the festival develop?

This year is newspaper The Times’ last as London’s headline sponsor after seven outings with the festival and it seems, from the outside anyway, to have been a good match.

And yesterday’s news that the BFI’s supersonic new film centre on London’s South Bank is certain to go ahead with £45m in UK Government backing secured will ultimately mean that LFF’s gala premieres go there. London is proof that things can change; that festival calendars aren’t written in stone. We’re watching its rise with interest.