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London Film Festival 2013: An Inside Perspective

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bfi_london_film_festival-264x300For film writers, especially those based in the UK, October is no longer the start of a month that begins with the fading sun and ends in Halloween, but instead becomes infinitely more important.

This year I was lucky to receive press accreditation to attend the London Film Festival (LFF) for liveforfilms.com (also LFF, confusing much?) – very lucky because I co-wrote this about the cost of accreditation (I was only taking an opposing viewpoint!)

As most readers aren’t able to gain this internal view of the running of a prominent film festival, I thought I would share my experiences as a press attendee – the highs and the lows.

A bit about the Festival itself

London is one of the world’s busiest and most inviting cities and in 56 years the LFF has finally developed a prominent reputation of well-chosen, varied films, attracting the highest-profile actors and directors. Although it cannot compete with the glamour of Cannes, Venice and Sundance, it is internationally recognised and, well, it’s in my home city so it’s surprisingly convenient for me to attend…

London has hundreds of cinemas, and much as I’d like to be spending my time sampling the goodies from Konditor & Cook at the Curzon Soho, the majority of the press screenings are held at the Odeon and Vue Leicester Square and the Cineworld at the Trocadero. Not all glamour I am afraid.

The Film Festival works in a number of ways. There are more than 300 films showing over the three-week period, including films that are competing for the Best Film award  (equivalent to winning the Palme D’or at Cannes), plus Best Documentary and the Sutherland Trophy for most innovative first (or weirdly, second) feature – previous winners of that award include Red Road, Persepolis and Beasts of the Southern Wild). Obviously, as this is a European film festival there are a large number of high-brow indie and foreign-language films to see – but with presentations in numerous categories like Laugh (funny) and Sonic (musically-inspired) on offer there is really something for everyone.

It’s easy to forget that the LFF is also a money-making business – the public can attend a screening for every film in the festival, for which they’ll pay a princely sum in order to get to see things that won’t be out in the UK for months yet.

The dark and, thankfully, huge Odeon Leicester Square.

The dark and, thankfully, huge Odeon Leicester Square.

Inside the Festival

Well before the festival starts credentials need to be established before I receive the fabled LFF Press Pass – but we’re lucky enough to have an award-winning film site with thousands of views so this year LiveForFilms writers Mike, Piers and myself are given almost the same level of prestige as newspaper critics.

I am particularly proud as women are extremely under-represented in movie critique worldwide – which is a little crazy when, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, in 2012 women made up  52% of the audience members in the US and Canada – one of the world’s largest movie markets.

So, I had my pass, I had my schedule of the press screenings (you only get in by having your pass scanned by the organisers) and now I just needed to decide what I wanted to see. What I discovered was that – like Glastonbury – everyone has their own individual experience of the LFF. You could watch 50 different films from a counterpart. Knowing where to start was bordering on stressful so I picked a mixture of things I wanted to see, things I should see and things that were randomly worth a punt.

Negotiating the crowd to get to your screening fifteen minutes early was a central London experience I would rather not have – and dealing with the other guests was strange – I noticed that people would come into a screening half an hour before a film ends (why?) and while I was crying and laughing at a movie an older gentleman beside me used scenes of bomb warfare as an opportunity to catch up on forty winks…

Tried to pick a photo that hadn’t been photo-shopped too much…

Tried to pick a photo that hadn’t been photo-shopped too much…

This week I managed a fair few films and I possibly single-handedly kept the local Starbucks and Caffe Neros in business. It was only after a couple of days that I cottoned on to the free media area inside the Troc, with it’s WiFi and discounted drinks. But by the end of the week I was very much at home – even deciding on my favourite toilet stall in the Ladies (clue: the one with a working light).

But once immersed in a film I was in heaven. I managed to move from 3D blockbuster (Gravity) to tiny-budget independent (Tom at the Farm) in the space of an hour, as well as burgeoning directorial sensation Richard Ayoade’s The Double and International adaptation of a well-loved book Half of a Yellow Sun. The sheer variety that is on offer at the LFF is magical.

I eventually dealt with the early hours and long days (watching so many films with a higher degree of concentration is strangely tiring), but there’s something so rewarding about sitting in one of the most respectful cinema audiences I was likely to find . No popcorn, no coughing, no checking illuminating phones and no unnecessary chatter, even in a screen that sits hundreds. We could all enjoy the work in silent pleasure.

I was also naive about the kind of company I would be keeping – from respected and popular newspaper reviewers to journalists from global periodicals, it can be mind-blowing. I was just as likely to be sitting next to someone from Germany or the US as a fellow Brit – cementing how truly important the LFF is internationally. Plus the films being shown really carried this international feel.

When I am enjoying the films on show so much it is easy to forget that the festival helps sell films to international markets. The LFF gave me an insight into how quickly these deals are done. At one point, two agents in different rows of a screening were debating over my head the distribution value of a movie in a (director-preferred) black & white version over its original colour  – I felt weirdly voyeurisitic to be privy to  these decisions, and surprised that they weren’t being made by Weinstein types in sharp suits over cocktails, but hipsters dressed in jeans with notepads.

Yeah, yeah, but what’s in it for me?

Reading this, you may be wondering why bother attending the LFF is you don’t have a press pass. But there is still so much fun to be had, whether you love movies or your interest in film is only fleeting. Every film at the festival is available to the public and you can buy your tickets and see the stars by reading here. But if things are sold out or you’re just not sure – let us at LiveForFilms recommend the films you should see when they’re given general release and you can be better prepared for next year’s LFF – and event not to be missed.

My highlight of the LFF so far was being six feet away from Sandra Bullock at an international premiere. With tears, laughs and unintended the motion-sickness  – it has been a memorably enjoyable experience so far.

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