When Tricia Tuttle, director of the BFI London Film Festival, arrived in Cannes in July, it marked the first time in a long time she found herself sitting in a large-scale venue to watch a film. The experience, she says, was “incredibly emotional.”
Which is perhaps why, when asked what her highlights are from the upcoming LFF (Oct. 6-17), Tuttle doesn’t cite one or two films but the entire festival. “It sounds so obvious, but getting back into cinemas — absolutely. And a largescale, physical, live festival.”
With last year’s LFF a primarily virtual event, Tuttle and her team were determined that 2021 would be accessible in-person. But, for that to be possible, they needed to make the decision in late May/early June, when most of the U.K. population was still unvaccinated and no one had any idea whether, by fall, another lockdown might be on the horizon. “We knew we wanted to get back to cinemas,” says Tuttle. “Our chief executive, Ben Roberts, and the board of the BFI really backed us on what was a calculated risk.”
Tuttle and her team hope that, by the time the festival opens, they will be able to fill venues to 100% capacity but, either way, the spaces they have chosen — including the Royal Festival Hall at Southbank Centre, where they have built a 59-foot screen, augmented the sound and installed a 4k projector — are large enough to ensure robust audiences even at a limited capacity. Guests and staff will be asked to wear masks in the cinemas and talent handling has its own COVID protocol.
This year’s LFF is a slightly more slimmed-down version with 160 films in the program, although it turns out that was a deliberate decision rather than a pandemic side-effect. “We want to spend more time with each filmmaker, more time with each film and helping that film find its audience,” says Tuttle.
For Tuttle, the audience is at the forefront of her mind when putting the LFF together. “We’re very, very clear that we are an audience festival. That’s how we were established,” she says. The aim is to have a “varied program” ranging from “a major red carpet award season contender playing against an artist moving image or slow cinema or, you know, an anime film, and they all feel very comfortable.” And while the programmers do take into consideration whether they can snag a European or international premiere, of which there are 20 in the film section this year, “it’s not the deciding factor,” she says.
As part of that, the LFF is simultaneously showcasing some of its program at 10 venues across the U.K., including in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Sheffield. “What makes [LFF] unique is two things,” says Tuttle. “One, where we’re situated geographically is a great bridge between North American and English-speaking [territories]. So it’s a geographical and linguistic connection to those English-language production territories, but also we are a part of Europe as well too.”
The other is where LFF, which traditionally runs in October, sits in the awards season calendar. “This has become an increasingly important place to bring a film if it has award season ambitions.” Certainly LFF has traditionally been seen as a launchpad for British films looking to find an audience in the U.K. “We’re trying to achieve the same cultural aims,” Tuttle says of the LFF and the distributors it partners with, “which is to encourage people to see a broader range of work.”
That is particularly true this year, with the LFF expanding its series and immersive strands, among which is the European premiere of “Succession” Season 3. Were there any concerns from distributors that streamers, whom some see as responsible for exhibitors’ woes, were stealing many of the headline slots at the LFF this year? Besides “The Harder They Fall,” Netflix has a gala screening of Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” and Apple’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” is the closing film.
“I would hope that we are the type of festival that can support the on-strategy of any rightsholder that we work with. There are lots of different ways to program films and Netflix are — and have been for a few years — a really great distribution partner who make incredible work that adds so much to the festival.” It’s also impossible to get away from the fact that both viewers and creators are moving seamless across film and television.
“We’re really aware of the fact that audiences, particularly younger audiences, aren’t making the same sorts of distinctions.” She cites Steve McQueen’s “Small Axe,” which was a BBC/Amazon co-production, as an example.
“It’s not just Netflix, you know. Amazon are in the space, Apple are in the space, Disney Plus, Warner Bros. have their own platform.”
Which brings us to one of the hottest topics at Cannes: with streaming on the rise, what is the future of cinema? Tuttle feels “really optimistic” about independent films. “I really think — I really genuinely believe — that people will continue to want to see films in a collective environment.”
“I think anyone who works in film, and certainly in film festivals, what we love is interacting with filmmakers and audiences and seeing how the things that you might have seen on a small screen play when you get a big full audience there,” she says.
“And just that kind of electricity that you get with an audience seeing things together in a screen is something I’m absolutely looking forward to.”
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