London Film Festival offers beacon of hope to COVID-hit industry

By Paul Sandle and Jonathan Shenfield
LONDON (Reuters) - The red carpet pizzazz will be missing and fewer films will be featured at this year's London Film Festival, but fans can still enjoy a wide variety of programming, either on the big screen while socially distant or streamed on their own become houses.
Festival Director Tricia Tuttle said the hybrid model means that despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can deliver a living event to audiences in cinemas in London and beyond, as well as online.
"There is really no physical location for the festival this year," Tuttle said in an interview on Thursday.
Social distancing, which reduces the capacity of movie theaters to around 30% of normal levels, has expanded the festival beyond its home at the British Film Institute (BFI) on London's South Bank and other independent cinemas in the capital to cities such as the capital Manchester, Bristol and Sheffield.
"Even if you don't live in a city that has great independent cinema, you can watch almost the entire festival on the BFI Player, our digital cinema," said Tuttle.
This year the festival will screen 60 feature films from the UK and around the world, out of the usual 220, but it doesn't detract from diversity.
"What we're trying to achieve is different voices, different perspectives," said Tuttle. "There are over 40 countries on the program, so it's still an international program, but it's also a celebration of cinema."
"British cinema is also very, very important to us. It's very much alive."
"Moment of resistance"
The festival opened on Wednesday with British filmmaker Steve McQueen's "Mangrove" telling the story of a group of black activists in London 50 years ago.
It ends on October 18th with "Ammonite," a romantic drama by Francis Lee starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.
Globally, however, cinema is struggling to survive commercially after COVID-19 resulted in theaters being closed or capacity cut and large studios postponing the blockbusters that are making the money.
Later on Thursday, Cineworld will temporarily close its 127 Cineworld and Picturehouse theaters in the UK and 536 Regal theaters in the US, blaming Hollywood studies' reluctance to release films like the new James Bond.
Oliver Meek, executive director of the independent Rio Cinema in east London, said Hollywood's response to the pandemic had been a heavy blow.
"We build our program as much as possible on the big hits," he said.
"Although we have a pretty varied program here and we have a lot of independent films, we depend on three or four films a year to get really big box offices."
If the studios wait for life to return to normal, he said, "Unfortunately there is a great chance that many, many cinemas will not be here to show these films."
Tuttle said she hopes the industry will pull itself together to meet the challenge.
"We work with cinemas across the country," she said. "It is a moment of resistance, of defiance."
(Adaptation by Gareth Jones)
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