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

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The pizzazz of the red carpet will be lacking and fewer films will be on offer at this year's , but fans can still enjoy a broad programme, either on the big screen while socially distanced or streamed into their own homes.

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

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

Social distancing, which reduces the capacity of cinemas to about 30% of normal levels, has triggered an expansion of 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 Manchester, Bristol and Sheffield.

"Even if you don't live in a city that has a great independent cinema, you can still watch almost all of the festival on the BFI Player, which is our digital cinema," Tuttle said.

This year the festival will showcase 60 feature films from Britain and around the world, down from the usual 220 or so, but variety will not be sacrificed.

"What we're trying to achieve is different voices, different perspectives," Tuttle said. "There are over 40 countries represented in the programme, so its still an international programme but it's also a celebration of cinema."

"UK cinema is also really, really important to us. It's very vibrant."

"MOMENT OF RESISTANCE"

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 Oct. 18 with "Ammonite", a romantic drama written and directed by Francis Lee, starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.

Worldwide, however, cinema is struggling commercially to survive after COVID-19 caused theatres to shut or cut capacity, and major studios to postpone the blockbusters that rake in the cash.

Later on Thursday Cineworld will temporarily shutter its 127 Cineworld and Picturehouse cinemas in Britain and 536 Regal theatres in the United States, blaming the reluctance of Hollywood studies to release films such as the new James Bond.

Oliver Meek, executive director of the independent Rio cinema in east London, said Hollywood's response to the pandemic was a huge blow.

"We build our programme as much as possible around the big hits," he said.

"Whilst we have quite a diverse programme here and play a lot of independent films, we are reliant on three or four films a year to really hit big box office."

If the studios wait until life gets back to normal, he said, "there's very sadly a strong chance that lots and lots of cinemas won't be here to show those films".

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

"We're working collaboratively with cinemas around the country," she said. "It's a moment of resistance, of defiance."

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