Everything Filmmakers + Actors Need to Know About the BFI London Film Festival

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Photo Source: BFI. Pictured – Nubiya Brandon (All Kinds of Limbo) at LFF Expanded

The London Film Festival will return to the UK capital this year in early October. The long-running British Film Institute (BFI)-produced festival screens a combination of domestic and international films. Due to the impact of COVID-19, this year’s 64th edition will be structured differently, adopting a “hybrid” model. While a smattering of the programmed films will be screened as usual at BFI Southbank, the bulk of the programming is accessible online to anyone in the UK via the BFI Player. The festival will also screen select films in venues across the country. The festival has introduced audience awards as a one-off for this year, replacing the usual jury awards. Likewise, an online ceremony is replacing the red-carpet event. There will be talks, online VR experiences through LFF Expanded, and more.

This year’s emphasis on access and focus on celebration are part of a recent trend for the event. The size and scope of the London Film Festival, or LFF, has been expanding for the past decade. Before that, the festival was long perceived as “a bit of a closed shop,” with programming mostly veering toward European arthouse cinema. These selections were curated alongside indie films from up-and-coming directors. The focus was resolutely on providing BFI members with a well-curated view into the latest trends in cinema. Indeed, LFF was originally conceived as “a festival of festivals,” and drew heavily from successful films at Cannes and Venice.

The past few years have seen the festival expand, improving on this original model. The last two artistic directors instituted changes that have sparked increased participation from Londoners. That includes an increased number of public events, heightened “festivity,” and more gala screenings of red-hot films with major awards potential. Driving these changes is LFF’s desire to draw more and new people into the festival with headline events and films. The extra attention benefits the rest of the programming, including the underground, emerging, and experimental selections. Programmers have furthered this conception of the festival by introducing film strands. These broad categories group together the programming based on content and themes, rather than separating the films by production genres such as documentaries, features, or experimental.

The changes have transformed LFF into an Oscars launchpad. Last year saw Netflix’s The Irishman and Marriage Story appear at the festival. Both films garnered Oscar attention, as did Ford v. Ferrari and Jojo Rabbit, also screened during the 63rd edition. This year will be no different. Chloé Zhao’s buzzy Nomadland is coming to LFF after already winning the 2020 Golden Lion at Venice and the People’s Choice Award at Toronto. The absence of official, in-person awards may also add an interesting wrinkle. Winners of the Best Film Award and the long-running Sutherland Award have usually skewed toward arthouse cinema and have been stronger predictors of the Césars and BAFTA film awards. The audience awards may instead provide an extra boost of momentum for Academy Awards and Golden Globe contenders.

In this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about this year’s London Film Festival, including its history at BFI Southbank, how to access films online this year, and about special 64th edition events such as the Virtual Awards.

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When did the London Film Festival start?

The London Film Festival, or LFF, had its first edition in 1957. The director of the British Film Institute at that time was James Quinn. The story goes that Quinn attended a dinner party at the home of Sunday Times film critic Dilys Powell, where guests complained of the absence of a film festival in London. Spurned by this conversation, Quinn worked alongside influential friends and backers to launch the LFF. Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood opened the inaugural year at the National Film Theatre; the festival began the day after it was opened by Princess Margaret. The National Film Theatre is now known as BFI Southbank, and continues to serve as the festival’s home.

The London Film Festival was initially conceived as a “festival of festivals.” The programming focused on the best films from other major European festivals, including Cannes and Venice. Films from Britain weren’t even screened for the first few editions. Likewise, there was no official competition. For many years, the only official award was the Sutherland Award, given to a director for their first or second film. This award originally only applied to any film screened at the National Theatre for a given year, not just the festival. In 1997, the Sutherland Award changed to honour films solely screening at the LFF.

The popularity of the London Film Festival eventually necessitated some changes. When films won at other festivals, they quickly acquired British distributors prior to the late fall schedule of the LFF. Programmers responded by screening more debuts and lesser-known names by the mid-1960s. British film also became part of the regular programming around this time. By the 1970 edition, only seven of the 28 features shown had acquired distribution. Future international superstars became a staple, such as David Lynch and Werner Herzog, who both had early films screened that year. As the festival continued to expand throughout the decade, “indie” films increasingly screened alongside the European “arthouse” fare that had originally defined the LFF’s programming.

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What has been LFF’s role in the international film festival landscape?

London Film Festival was perceived for many years as an event “for BFI members,” according to former artistic director Clare Stewart. Under her purview, the festival transformed from a regional event into “a very vibrant informal business hub” that “play[s] strongly into … its calendar moment.” Stewart’s aim was clear – while she believed London was “very neighbourhood-driven,” it was also “home to a lot of voting Academy members and the BAFTAs.” Stewart capitalised on that energy by articulating “the benefit of screening at the festival and positioning the films for the awards-season campaign.”

One major change Stewart implemented was the competitive categories. For many years, LFF was organised around regional categories, such as British, French, European, and World. Stewart instead organised the festival around the awards and jury competitions. Stewart acknowledged that competitive sections are “actually a very old-fashioned festival structure.” However, she also felt that they “had come back around in the age of social media, because people want to be involved in a conversation about what’s going to win.” As another bonus, the new structure “gave significant profile to some of the more challenging and international films that may not otherwise break out.”

In fact, generating interest for non-cinephile Londoners was a major impetus for Stewart to screen more films with awards potential. “The LFF plays an increasingly important role in the awards season build-up for both the BAFTAs and Academy Awards,” Stewart told BBC News. These films “open the festival out to a broader audience and help [LFF] introduce other more surprising, discovery films to people who might be attracted in by these big films.” Increasing access across the UK is another ongoing project for the LFF. That legacy can be felt this year, with virtual screenings accessible anywhere in the country. When Stewart departed from her role, her changes were acknowledged by BFI as “raising our game on the international stage and crucially, increasing audiences in London and across the UK.”

Who selects the films that screen at LFF?

For its 64th edition, the London Film Festival’s programming team is led by Tricia Tuttle. She also serves as the director of BFI festivals. She has a background as a programmer, lecturer, writer, and journalist, including at BAFTA. Tuttle first stepped into the role in 2018, when she served as interim director during the previous director’s sabbatical. She was announced as the permanent replacement later that year. The programming team is filled out by a number of internationally recognised programmers, many of them long-term BFI employees.

The pandemic was the major factor shaping this year’s programming. Tuttle told Variety: “The biggest challenge, the whole time, has been stepping into the unknown.” The result was a “hybrid” model that combined online screenings for films, alongside a limited number of showings in physical theatres. “We had to make some assumptions about what we would and wouldn’t be able to do,” Tuttle said. “We really had to lock early before we knew what the autumn would look like.”

The atmosphere was very different last year. Speaking to Variety in 2019, Tuttle said: “One of the things we’re going to be doing is pulling into the centre [of the city] to create a sense of buzz.” That included an “incredible strength in debuts” to complete the “lively festival atmosphere.” Although Tuttle remarked that “we don’t programme to quotas,” she also admitted that “we want to keep turning up the dial on…the diversity of the program.” Last year, 79 countries were represented, with 40% of the films overall directed or co-directed by women; that percentage was 60% for the main competition.

This year, however, the focus is on accessibility. “We’re a public-facing festival, so that virtual premiere element became even more important,” Tuttle told Little White Lies. “Getting audiences back into cinemas was [also] really important,” she continued. That includes 50 premieres available online, as well as screenings in LFF’s “home,” BFI Southbank. “All the things that matter to us – audience access, creating greater UK-wide access to the festival, the overall expansion of the festival programme – we’ve been able to achieve,” said Tuttle.

How can I submit a film to LFF?

Each year, LFF accepts submissions for both feature-length and short films from international and UK-based directors. Short films are defined as 40 minutes or less; feature films are defined as over 40 minutes. Submissions are closed for this year, but the posting of the 2021 guidelines will be announced on social media in the first quarter of next year. Applicants must submit an application form and a fee. Once applicants have received confirmation of their submission, they must provide the festival with either a link to view the film online, or a DVD. Further questions can be directed via email to this address.

The submission deadline for this year was 5 June, with a late submission deadline of 17 June. Fees depend on the deadline used and whether the production is UK-based or international. UK productions pay £40–£55 for features and £15–£20 for shorts; international productions pay £60–£75 for features and £20–£30 for shorts. Additionally, there was an early-bird deadline on 3 April for feature films with the benefit of a reduced fee, £30 for UK productions, and £45 for International.

What awards does LFF present, and who votes on them?

For 2020, the London Film Festival will not convene a jury. Instead, audience members will vote on four awards: Best Fiction Feature Film, Best Documentary Feature Film, Best Short Film, and Best XR. The winners will be announced live in an online ceremony on 18 October.

This year’s format is unusual. A standalone awards ceremony was introduced in 2009. For the past few years, four international juries voted on each category, awarding one trophy each. The Best Film award joined the long-established Sutherland Award for emerging talent and the Frierson Award for Best Documentary. An award for Best Short Film was introduced in 2015, about the time the Best British Newcomer Award phased out; it was last seen in 2014.

Last year, the Official Competition jury was headed by Wash Westmoreland, while the Sutherland Award had Jessica Hausner leading the jury. Both filmmakers had films in that year’s festival. The Documentary and Shorts competitions were headed by Yance Ford and Jacqui Davies, respectively. Juries were filled out by a mix of film professionals, including film critics, such as Jane Crowther of Total Film, actors including Lena Headey, and playwrights including Theresa Ikoko. “In a world of endless reboots and franchises, the BFI London Film Festival is more important than ever,” opined Westmoreland. He felt the festival screens “original uncompromising movies that showcase brilliant new voices in filmmaking.”

The Sutherland Award’s history stretches back to the beginning of the festival in 1957. The award was named in honour of BFI patron George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, the Duke of Sutherland. The first year, Yasujirō Ozu won for his film Tokyo Story. The film is now considered a “landmark of world cinema” by BFI. The award has gone to directors from a variety of countries, many achieving suitably illustrious careers. Robert Eggers won in 2015 for his debut The Witch. His most recent film, The Lighthouse, was nominated for an Academy Award and was widely celebrated by critics.

The Best Film category is newer, but the recipients have already developed a strong track record for winning major awards ­– particularly at the BAFTAs. The British-American We Need to Talk About Kevin won at LFF in 2011. The film was later nominated heavily at the BAFTAs, while Tilda Swinton was nominated for her role at the Golden Globes. The French film A Prophet won at LFF in 2009. After a year of accolades, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

What are the LFF award categories?

Although 2020 will be different (see below), the London Film Festival usually holds a stand-alone ceremony to announce award winners. Last year, the awards were:

Best Film
The Sutherland Award ­­(for the best first film by a director)
The Grierson Award for Best Documentary
Short Film Award (introduced in 2016)

Additionally, recipients of BFI Fellowships are sometimes announced during the London Film Festival. That includes Cate Blanchett, who was announced as a fellow during LFF in 2015.

The British Newcomer Award, once given to emerging talent from the UK, hasn’t been part of the ceremony since 2014.

However, none of that applies for this year. For the first time, LFF’s programming will be accessible online to anyone in the UK. Similarly, the LFF has replaced the traditional jury awards with the one-off Virtual LFF Audience Awards. Audience members will vote for their favourite films remotely. The award categories for this year are:

Best Film
Best Documentary
Best Short Film
Best XR / Immersive Art

This year, an online ceremony 18 October will announce the winners.

How often have titles with London premieres gone on to earn other accolades?

Since its creation, LFF has operated as a “festival of festivals.” That means the programming has always drawn heavily from renowned international art cinema. Many of the films are selected from those making the festival circuit that year, especially award winners at Cannes and Venice. LFF has never completely abandoned that identity. A sizable portion of their programming selections have already garnered attention over the year, like Alejandro Landes’ Monos and Mati Diop’s Atlantics, winners of BFI’s Best Film and Sutherland Award, respectively, last year.

In addition to the art cinema that’s formed its core identity, London Film Festival also screens a number of big-name films each year. Many of those films have strong awards buzz, and LFF often screens them at special galas. For example, the Coen Brothers’ Ballad of Buster Scruggs was shown at a gala event in 2018. The film was later nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Screenplay. Sadly, the galas will be largely absent for this year’s edition as the festival is mostly virtual.

The 62th Edition was packed with films that went on to achieve high honours later in the year. Former Oscar-winner Barry Jenkins of Moonlight had a 2018 LFF screening for his If Beale Street Could Talk, which then earned three nominations at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, with Regina King winning at both for her performance in the film. LFF also screened The Favourite in 2018. Yorgos Lanthimos’ film went on to receive nine nominations at the Academy Awards, with a win for star Olivia Colman. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which earned a huge 10 nominations and three wins at the Oscars, also screened at LFF that year.

With all this activity, LFF has become “a key launchpad” for films “with awards season ambitions,” as artistic director Tricia Tuttle told BBC News. Last year’s programming was no different, with Ford v. Ferrari, The Irishman, Marriage Story, and The Two Popes all going on to earn Oscar nominations. Highlighting future award-winners at LFF began with previous artistic director Clare Stewart. She told Screen Daily that when she took the position, “there was, from an external point of view, a perception that the festival was a bit of a closed shop.” Stewart revamped the festival, including having “the headline galas” screen “the annual [Oscar] contenders.” She told Variety that the “strategy ... has worked to elevate the festival overall… Not only are we attracting more filmmakers, but more and more of the industry that surrounds them.” This year’s virtual format hasn’t kept away award-ready films like Zhao’s Venice Film Festival award-winner Nomadland.

When and where does LFF happen?

As its name implies, the BFI London Film Festival is produced every year in coordination with the British Film Institute. Since its inception, LFF’s home has been the National Film Theatre. The two have been linked from the start; the LFF kicked off the day after the building’s inauguration in 1957. Now renamed BFI Southbank, the building is located under the arch of the Waterloo Bridge. It is part of the Southbank Centre, which includes the National Theatre and the Royal Festival Hall.

The London Film Festival takes place every year in early October; this year’s edition runs 7–18 October. Since the 1980s, screenings have extended beyond the Southbank. LFF partnered with American Express in 2010, which increased the festival’s reach even further. That includes cinecast presentations of the opening and closing ceremonies at Odeon Leicester Square’s red carpet. This year the festival will reach farther than ever, despite screening fewer films due to COVID-19. Most of the festival will be online and available to anyone in the UK, with a smattering of in-person screenings at BFI Southbank. Select films from the official selection will also screen in theatres throughout the UK, which are now open with smaller capacities.

How can I attend or participate?

Most of the films in this year’s festival can be seen online via the British Film Institute’s BFI Player. Users in the UK only can rent films on the BFI website, including most of this year’s LFF programming. The player can be used on PCs, Macs, smartphones, and tablets. Users will have to create an account and must pay with a card. Most films must be streamed within 30 minutes of their posted time. Some films, however, can be played 72 or 96 hours after their start time. To find out the details for each film, download the festival’s calendar as a pdf. For more system requirements for the BFI Player and for help with its operation, see the FAQ.

LFF is also holding in-person screenings at BFI Southbank for select feature films. Only a few films for 2020 LFF will be screened exclusively in theatres. An additional number of films will have both in-person screenings alongside virtual rentals. The remaining films have no BFI Southbank screenings, and are exclusively available on the web. However, films are also screening in venues across the UK; check here for availability. Tickets are £12 for both rentals and in-person screenings at BFI Southbank. To help with social distancing plans, seat pairs are also being sold at BFI Southbank for £24. There are also special £5 tickets available to audience members aged 16–25, for both online rentals and at BFI Southbank. For this year, the festival is offering accreditation to press, industry, and filmmakers from the UK only. Pass holders will be able to access the festival online and a few exclusive events; learn more here.

Another way to navigate the programming is the feature films strands. LFF has separated out the films under headlines such as Laugh, Journey, Create, and Dare. There are also Family and Treasures (Classics) sections. These strands allow people to identify films that will suit their taste, regardless of their profile or country of origin.

The short film programming is also available online through the BFI Player. The shorts are packaged together in groups of 5–8, and each shorts programme is available for the duration of the festival. Pedro Almodóvar’s The Human Voice, starring Tilda Swinton, is the one short that will screen at BFI Southbank. Tickets are available to the public.

Experimenta is another section of the festival that highlights “films by artists that revolutionise and reshape our vision of cinema.” The section covers both feature films and shorts. The events section of the programming is free through the BFI player and includes Screen Talks, Young Programmer Events, and a “Discursive” section for lectures and research. Another way to navigate this year’s huge slate of films is this list created by BFI.

LFF Expanded is a new online experience at the festival where attendees can explore a virtual museum, the Expanse. Inside the space is free access to 360 films and interactive works, as well as events such as this panel discussion. The programme is free online from 7–18 October. For the best experience exploring the Expanse, users will need either a tethered headset or an Oculus Quest. 360 films can also be seen with a mobile VR headset such as Google Cardboard or non-tethered headsets like Oculus Go. Users can also access the Expanse through their mobile device or a regular web browser on a computer. A limited number of free slots are available to attend LFF Expanded in-person at BFI Southbank.

The LFF is all about ease of access. The festival wants as many folks to attend as possible. And don’t forget about this year’s audience awards, announced virtually at the end of the festival.

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