Almost everything has been cancelled due to Covid-19, however, the amazing team of programmers and festival curators at the BFI haven’t allowed coronavirus to postpone or cancel the UK’s largest film festival. Taking place virtually thanks to the BFI player , The London Film Festival (LFF) opened this last Wednesday October 7th with Steve McQueen’s new film Mangrove. I had the pleasure of speaking with the LFF’s director, Tricia Tuttle about how she and her team were able to make this festival possible. You can read our conversation below. Enjoy!
Dan: With the festival taking place in October and everything with Covid starting to happen around March, did you begin to plan a virtual festival right away or did you hold out hope that it would pass and it would be business as usual?
Tricia: It definitely for a festival the scale of the London Film Festival, which is serving nearly 200,000 admissions in London and across the UK, it was 178,000 last year in London alone plus the satellite screenings that we do every year. It takes a whole year to plan, so even though we’ve had since March to start thinking about this, it’s really not a lot of time to pivot a major international event and rethink financial models and staffing models and partnership models. So it has felt really intense and quite a scramble in many ways, but to answer your question about when we started thinking about this, we run two festivals at the BFI, two major festivals; BFI Flare, which is in March every year, and you may have seen that earlier this year we had to turn BFI Flare into an online event and we only had 3 days to do that because the lockdown started 3 days before we were supposed to deliver that festival. We sort of started to see it coming, but like everyone else 3 weeks before the lockdown; I don’t think anyone could’ve guessed we were going to have a major lockdown.
So it happened really quickly and after we did that, we immediately started thinking about what was gunna be possible for the London Film Festival and what the festival was gunna look like. We spent about 2 and a half months thinking through different versions of the festival and the tricky thing was always trying to plan the festival without knowing exactly what the restrictions would be, where we would be with Covid, whether filmmakers would be able to travel, so we tried to anticipate in some ways a sort of worst case scenario, like could we design a model that, even if there was a second lockdown in the autumn, that we could still have a film festival and that’s why we ended up with the model that we have. We always knew it was important to us to retain that cinema programme as well, but we have designed our cinema programme so that, even if there was a lockdown, it wouldn’t have meant we couldn’t deliver a really good version of the festival.
Dan: So you had 3 days to virtualize the Flare festival. How were you able to turn that around in three days?
Tricia: It was two things; 1) The BFI have the BFI Player which is the digital platform with an incredible library of work and for the last 5 years we’ve been adding to a collection of LGBTQI+ films on that player, so there is great work from previous BFI Flare’s and a really really rich collection of 300 queer titles on that platform. So we had that foundation so there was always a classic film and recent cotemporary collection that audiences could engage with that we could build the festival on top of. 2) And then we went to our feature filmmakers who had a film in BFI flare and offered a sort of one size, “if you’re able to take this offer we would love to make your film available behind the subscription wall of the 12 days of the festival,” And 9 of the feature films did take us up on it and become part of the programme, so it was a small contemporary brand new film collection based a really incredible rich archive of recent and classic queer cinema, but that’s how we did it. Also all the people who purchased tickets for the physical festival, we gave them a 2 week free access to BFI Player so they could engage for free with the programme online. We learned a lot really quickly.
Dan: How did organizing a virtual festival differ from previous years?
Tricia: I won’t bore you with tonnes of details, but I’ll just say, operationally, running and planning this festival is almost completely different than the normal festival model. Almost every single process is very very different, so from the agreements we are making with filmmakers and distributors and sales agents to file delivery to the creation of more closed captioning we’ve done this year for audiences with hearing access needs. All of that felt really important this year because of being on the platform and having these films accessible we felt we really needed to follow through with that and make as many of them accessible to audiences who need captioning as possible. So we got 21 features there, plus all of the other features which have a full English subtitle, the non-English work that has full English subtitles throughout, but literally every process has been different.
The only thing that is really similar is programming. There have been different challenges this year around programming, but the principles on which we build the festival is still the same. We’re really interested in seeing work from a broad range of countries as that’s what we know our audiences want to see, they want to see previews of films they are hearing great buzz about alongside work they never get to see in any other context. People love seeing work from other countries and there are over 40 countries represented in the programme. It’s important to us as a programming team that we are representing a broad range of voices and perspectives and that’s very much part of the programming mix. We never programme to quotas, but this year, rather than 220 feature film selection, we were looking at a 60 feature film selection so we had to really scale that down to make sure we could keep that diversity in the programme, which I think we have done. So I think that was the only thing that was similar to be honest.
Dan: With the scaling down of films as you said, was that due to fewer films being completed due to Covid?
Tricia: It was partly operational because we knew that there was a limited capacity to work in a different way, but it was also about wanting to retain the quality of the programme in a year which we knew that the production and post-production pipeline was blocked. So before Venice there really wasn’t a major international film festival, there were loads of films which were in post-production and in the final stages of production when the lockdown started that weren’t able to finish because, for instance, I know many films couldn’t finish because they couldn’t get their score’s done in time if they had a need for a live orchestra. So it was a number of factors I think, but we knew that 50 or 60 films would mean that we could retain the real quality of the programme and also practically be something we can deliver.
Dan: What new challenges did you discover putting on a virtual festival as opposed to the general in person festival?
Tricia: God so many, let me think of one. Every day was a new challenge actually. We have different kinds of conversations with rights holders, so that was a process that because virtual premieres is a brand new thing, before this year it was almost unthinkable that you would get a fiction film in particular, documentary festivals had been experimenting a little bit over the last few years, but a new unreleased fiction film that the rights holders would go on the journey that they have gone on with us to allow what is essentially a virtual cinema model, we’re all trying to protect the transactional rights of these films and not interrupt that income model for the films, but the way we designed the virtual festival is very much like you would design a festival screening anyway; there is a limited number of tickets you can buy, they are scheduled at particular times, they got intros and Q&A’s around them, so they are festival screenings in every way, except rather than being in a physical cinema they are in a virtual cinema.
That was a challenge, talking to rights holders about that, but we were also doing it at the same time as they were experiencing a complete disruption of all of their markets and income streams and there were other rights holders who were having conversations with Toronto and New York about similar models for those festivals, although each of us has our own version of it. I was surprised, and really positively surprised, by how many rights holders agreed to our invitations and are excited about this way of working as well too, as a solution and response to the challenges of Covid.
Dan: Last year you said that 40% of films leave the festival with a distribution deal, how will that figure differ this year do you think?
Tricia: To be honest, I really haven’t looked this year, usually with 225 features we are working a lot on getting undistributed features in front of UK distributors, this year has really just been about audiences and just getting the festival delivered, so I can’t answer that question for this year yet.
Dan: Will you continue to use virtual streaming for future festivals once we are able to go back to normal?
Tricia: It’s a good question and I think it’s too early to say for sure. For the last 5 years we’ve been trying to increase access for audiences outside of London and we’ve experimented with simultaneous screenings all around the country with films like; They Shall Not Grow Old the Peter Jackson film, Peterloo, Mike Leigh’s film and The Irishman last year, Martin Scorsese’s film, and our closing film, so this has been an ambition of ours and certainly, both the way we are working with independent cinemas around the UK and also the virtual platform do deliver on those ambitions. So I love to think that we can find some elements of the way we are working this year to take into the future, but we definitely want to be back in cinemas and screening a broad range of work in that big screen collective viewing environment, where people are sitting in a packed house of strangers and watching films together. That’s going to be hugely important to get back to as soon as we can at scale, but yeah; I think we will take some of the innovations into the future.
The London Film Festival opened on the 7th October with Mangrove and concludes on the 18th October with Lovers Rock. Find more information about the programme, tickets and other events on the BFI website here: https://www.bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival