London Film Festival offers a glimmer of hope for COVID’s hit industry

(Reuters) – Red carpet pizzazz will be in short supply and there will be fewer films available at this year’s London Film Festival, but fans can still enjoy a wide-ranging program, either on the big screen as they socialize or stream into their own homes .

Festival director Tricia Tuttle said the hybrid model meant it could deliver a lively event for audiences, in cinemas in London and beyond as well as online, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This year there is no physical locus of the festival,” Tuttle said in an interview on Thursday.

Social distance, which reduces cinema capacity to around 30% of normal levels, has prompted the festival’s expansion beyond its home at the British Film Institute (BFI) on London’s South Bank and other independent cinemas in the the capital of cities such as Manchester, Bristol and Sheffield.

“Even if you don’t live in a city with a great independent cinema, you can still watch almost all of the festival on the BFI Player, our digital cinema,” said Tuttle. This year the festival will showcase 60 feature films from Britain and around the world, down from the usual 220 or more, but variety will not be sacrificed. “What we’re trying to achieve is different voices, different perspectives,” said Tuttle. “There are over 40 countries represented in the program, so it’s still an international program but it’s also a celebration of cinema.” “The UK cinema is also really important to us. It’s very lively. ”

The festival opened on Wednesday with British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s “Mangrove”, which tells the story of a group of Black activists in London 50 years ago. It closes on October 18 with “Ammonite”, a romantic drama written and directed by Francis Lee, starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.

Globally, however, cinema is struggling commercially to survive after COVID-19 caused theaters to close or cut capacity, and large studios to postpone the cash-crunching blockbusters ready.

Later on Thursday Cineworld will close its 127 Cineworld and Picturehouse cinemas in Britain and 536 Regal theaters in the United States, blaming the reluctance of Hollywood studies to release films like the new James Bond.

Oliver Meek, executive director of Rio’s independent cinema in east London, said Hollywood’s response to the pandemic was a huge blow. “We’re building our program as much as possible around the big hits,” he said.

“Although we have a fairly varied program here and play a lot of independent films, we rely on three or four films a year to really hit a big box office.”

If the studios wait until life gets back to normal, he said, “unfortunately there is a strong chance that there will be very few cinemas here to show those films”.

Tuttle said she hoped the industry would pull together to face the challenge.

“We work in conjunction with cinemas across the country,” he said. “It’s a moment of resistance, defiance.”