21 October 2010

How to Go to the London Film Festival

I joined the BFI a few months after moving to London, almost two years ago--shortly after the 2008 LoFiFest as I was in San Fransisco for the whole of October. Many people join in the weeks running up to the Festival in order to qualify for the LoFiFest members' priority booking period. BFI membership is excellent value with a range of free tickets on offer throughout the year, special members' events and discounts on tickets (and other things) but I would say that it is bad value if you don't plan to use your membership after the festival.

Last year, I was a LoFiFest virgin. I was very excited to receive the programme in the post--how could I possibly choose which films to attend? I wasn't fussed about attending the opening or closing night galas so I didn't apply via the post and just waited until the online members' priority period. The only events I really cared about were the Clive Owen Screen Talk and Clive's new film, The Boys Are Back. The website was very crashy that morning but I got my tickets. I then picked a few others including Chloe, The Informant! and the Surprise Film and managed to get tickets for them--but only by checking the BFI website several times a day to see whether there were any returns (the BFI does email and tweet about returns but I had more luck just checking myself).

This year, I felt a little more confident about the booking process. I really wanted to see Never Let Me Go but I knew the odds of getting tickets weren't good. Of the other films, I chose two galas (Black Swan and Conviction), two regular films (Les petits mouchoirs and Blue Valentine) and the (free) members' surprise film. To apply for the opening night, you have to apply by post and I thought that as postal applications are processed first, I'd apply for the other tickets at the same time. Online booking opens a week or so later but if you've applied by post you don't necessarily know by then if you've already got tickets so you can't apply online for the tickets that are released for online bookings. It turned out I didn't get tickets for any of the galas but I did get tickets for the other three films.

Many people have complained about this on the BFI's Facebook page (well, about the fact they didn't get tickets for the films from their postal apps even if they dropped off the booking form in person, rather than about me not getting them). It is a little frustrating but after finding out my ticket allocation (or lack thereof), I just stalked the LoFiFest website to see if any tickets had been returned. Maybe I was just lucky, but I got tickets for all three galas, including Never Let Me Go. Black Swan was the hardest to come by--I happened to come across one lone seat in the front row for Friday night's screening and decided to pounce rather than hold out for a better offer. Yes, it's a bit of a pain to keep checking the website but I really wanted to see these films and I figured it was worth a little extra effort on my part. Also, I chose films that won't be released in the UK soon and so didn't mind paying a little extra for the tickets.

I don't blame BFI for their booking system (although it wouldn't hurt a) to clarify how it works and what "first come, first served" means and b) to rent some more servers when the online booking opens) because for me to go to these kind of events at all is pretty amazing, let alone to six over the course of two weeks. It's a shame that others do and that they are threatening to rescind their membership.

Another thing I had to learn by experimentation was which screenings to attend to get the Q&As with the cast and crew (the BFI has now provided an explanation here; perhaps this could go in the programme next year). Some screenings are listed in the programme as "galas" and are more expensive but I found that generally, you would only get the Q&A and celebrity guest appearances on the screenings on the first night the film is on (even though the screenings all cost the same). The BFI also says that if there are two screenings of a film (at 8.30 and 8.45, say), it's often best to go for the later one because the actors will usually want to watch the film with the audience and so introduce the first film, introduce the second film, watch the second film and do the Q&A with the second film audience. This happened at the 8.45 performance of Conviction and hopefully it will happen with the 8.45 of Black Swan. Meanwhile, cast and crew sometimes turn up for non-gala films--I think The Informant! last year was a non-gala but the director and writer showed up. I don't think The Boys Are Back was a gala either but I knew Clive would be in town for the Screen Talk the following day and so guessed he'd be there.

My main request for the BFI is to bring back Clive Owen next year. Other than that, I'm happy to soak up the LoFiFest atmosphere and see some great new films; if I also get to see the actors and crew, that's an added bonus.

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