Why go to Film Festivals?

lff-2016-title-artwork-750x680_0 “See the best films first” ran the tagline for the 60th BFI London Film Festival. The title was spelled out with gold dust, bespeaking prestige. I’m interested in this concept of exclusivity in the festival’s marketing. The idea is not only to see the best films, nor to see them early, but to see them “first”. Before your friends. Before the cinema going public.

The twelve days of the festival have now finished. During that time I was able to attend ten of the 148 screenings. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at the festival and was genuinely sorry to see the closing gala come so fast. So why did I enjoy these events? There’s no question that I saw some of the best films, but how significant is it that I saw these movies “first”? Had I waited just a few months to see these films at regular cinemas I certainly would have saved money. Why do so many people come to these events?

This year the BFI reported a record number of attendees (some 185,000 tickets bought). The increase in numbers is in part due to the construction of a massive new screen in the Victoria Embankment gardens. The screen was erected in just eight days and sat 780 people. The imposing black box with its long red carpet was certainly very noticeable to anyone travelling by Embankment Underground Station. Park Chan Wook remarked that the cinema did not seem very “temporary” to him. It was a very impressive and ostentatious feat of engineering. Indicative of the decadence of the festival.

lff-embankment-garden-cinema-exteriorThe cinemas that take part in the LFF are scattered all over London and do tend to draw attention to themselves. The Odeon in Leicester Square and the BFI Southbank both installed red carpets and velvet ropes which were then policed by security staff in black uniforms. Celebrities can be found arriving in the standard BFI red Peugeot with plenty of press to greet them. Walking into one of these venues with a bright red ticket tucked into your pocket certainly does wonders for the ego.

The pageantry of these screenings can be very distracting. On more than one occasion once the hosts and guests had left the stage and the lights came down I actually felt a little pang of disappointment as we settled in to do something as conventional as “watch a film”. Surely this suggests that this is not an ideal way of seeing the “best films first”. You do also emerge from these screenings to a world that has not seen the film yet. Part of the joy of seeing any film is to discuss them, so what is the benefit of seeing films long before anyone else if not for bragging rights?

Well in fact, it’s not about ego at all. There is a very important aspect to these screenings that must not be overlooked.

By seeing a film at the London Film Festival (or indeed any large film festival) you make an occasion out of going to the cinema. Multiplex cinemas are designed to seat as many people as possible into as many screenings as possible to maximise the sale of tickets. Minimal considerations are made to the experience of the cinema goers. But at the LFF you are greeted by volunteers as soon as you enter the venue. Before the film starts a custodian will come to the front of the auditorium and introduce the film. After the screenings there are often conversations with cast and crew members. The effect of all these little touches is significant: this is film watching as an experience.

For me this recalls childhood feelings towards the cinema. Going to see a film on the big screen was an exception, not a rule. Everything about the experience was beguiling and wonderful. The more frequently you go to the cinema the more likely you are to forget what a incredible thing these shared experiences in dreaming actually are. Film festivals are a wonderful opportunity to celebrate film and be reminded of its power.

As I left the closing gala of the festival I walked past the temporary Embankment Garden Cinema which will shortly be deconstructed. Recalling the premier of Park Chan Wook’s The Handmaiden I had attended a few weeks earlier I was struck by a sudden melancholy. The next time I walked into a cinema there would be no one to welcome us. No one to introduce the film. Any chocolate found on the seats would certainly not be a pleasant surprise. It would just be a cinema.

Yet perhaps this is a good thing. I will shortly review each of the ten events I attended at the London Film Festival. With only two exceptions I do intend on revisiting these films once they receive a general release and I shall be very interested to see if my experience is any different when sat in my cheap Cineworld seat. Because really all that matters is the film. The affectations of a large scale film festival are utterly intoxicating but ultimately count for nothing unless the films are able to arrest you for their runtime. In this respect I was very lucky at the 60th London Film Festival, but there is nothing to suggest I won’t get just as lucky next week in my local cinema.

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We're Nerds, and man, do we get bored. Our Twitter: @nerdsgetbored

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