Another day, another coup for Australian heading London film festival

IT was impossible to miss Clare Stewart at the opening of the 56th British Film Institute London Film Festival. Wearing a hot pink dress inspired, in part, by director Tim Burton's retro sci-fi movie Mars Attacks!, she stood out from all the dinner suits and little black dresses like a flamingo at a funeral parlour.

The dress was made in a single day by London designer Henrietta Ludgate and speaks volumes about Stewart's style, both sartorial and personal. The former director of the Sydney Film Festival has been in London for little more than a year. But as the BFI's head of exhibition – a role encompassing the programming of the institute's two cinemas as well as directorship of the London Film Festival – she has already achieved a high profile within the British film community and film fans in general.

“It's interesting how I'm characterised over here – I'm often referred to as direct,” she laughs. “My personal favourite was 'bubbly and no bullshit'. There's a certain response to what might be defined as my Australianness.”

However you define it, Stewart's approach is bringing results. Her first London Film Festival opened in a blaze of publicity on October 10 with the European premiere of Burton's stop-motion animation Frankenweenie. The American director, his partner Helena Bonham Carter and members of the voice cast including Martin Short and screen legend Martin Landau walked the red carpet in Leicester Square. The film was also shown simultaneously at 30 cinemas across the capital in a concerted bid to broaden the festival's reach.

The following day, another coup: Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein delivered a keynote address to the festival's industry forum in which he railed against internet piracy. Dustin Hoffman, Bill Murray, Helen Hunt, Ben Affleck and Billy Connolly are all coming to the festival that closes on Sunday with the premiere of Mike Newell's adaptation of Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (with Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham).

Eclipsing them all is the world premiere of the new Rolling Stones documentary Crossfire Hurricane on Thursday, British time. All four members of the veteran band will attend the screening.

Stewart admits there's a buzz around the festival but won't take all the credit for this starry line-up.

“The festival has gone from strength to strength in recent years,” she says, pointing out that both The King's Speech and The Artist kicked off their award campaigns in London. “Venice and Toronto [festivals] start the buzz, but there's a big injection of excitement that can really happen at this festival. It has an important role to play in the early awareness of award-season films.”

Stewart is employing similar tactics in London to those she used to raise the Sydney Film Festival's international profile and pull it out of deficit during her five years at the helm. London buses are displaying the festival's slogan, “Feel it”, next to a large photograph of a gap-mouthed movie-goer. Traditional film categories such as "European cinema" have been replaced by emotive tags such as Love, Laugh, Dare, Thrill and Sonic.

In her opening night speech Stewart quoted director Douglas Sirk, who opined that emotions and the ability to feel are as important to the creative process as intellect.

“You want both to co-exist,” she says. “I might be being a little bit bold doing this in my first year, but it's something I want to draw to the fore. It's at the base of the new programming logic.”

She has bolstered the festival's official competition categories and holds them out as the home of “traditional, rigorous programming”. It allows her to be more playful elsewhere, she argues.

Emotions aside, there have been substantial changes to the festival's structure. It was at capacity when she took the reins, so Stewart has shortened the event to 12 days but added evening and weekend sessions at cinemas in every quarter of the capital. As a result, the festival's capacity has risen by 18 per cent overall and 40 per cent in the prime-time evening and weekend slots. These changes are already showing up in the bottom line. Amanda Nevill, the BFI's director, says ticket revenues hit last year's total with two weeks still to go.

Stewart, who has set up home in Fitzrovia on the edge of the West End and across the road from an antipodean cafe called Kaffeine, admits her life is frantic. Part of her looks forward to the end of the festival, so she can start to live a more normal life in her adopted home. Then again, the breadth of her job – including programming at the BFI's two cinemas on the south bank of the River Thames – means there will be little downtime.

“I definitely get a sense my life can start on the 22nd of October, but really the festival is only half my job,” she says. “I'll be waking up going, 'Right, what happens in the cinemas today!'”

Frankenweenie opens in Australia on October 25 and Great Expectations on November 1.

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