64th London Film Festival 7-18 October 2020

For the last few years I’ve always tried to visit the annual LFF for three or four days. It’s one of the few benefits of BFI Membership for us ‘out-of-towners’ and although it is an expensive few days, it has always felt worthwhile because of the possibility of finding, among the 250 or so films, some gems that are unlikely to get into UK distribution. It is good for me to feel that I have some grasp of what is going on in international non-Hollywood film and the LFF possibly helps in this, especially since most filmmakers are also present at the their screenings.

The Covid Pandemic has changed everything. This year’s festival has a greatly reduced selection of titles, only some of which will play in cinemas. But in addition, there is a wide selection of festival screenings being offered online via BFI Player. Personally, I’m still in restricted lockdown and I have no desire to travel to London or to go into a cinema anywhere in the current ‘Second Wave’ context. So I’ve purchased some online tickets. I’ve already discovered that there are some significant benefits and disbenefits of an online festival on the scale of LFF. I’ve already tried online visits to some smaller festivals and that has been fine but London is a different issue.

The restored Iranian pre-revolution film Chess of the Wind (Iran 1976)

First, it’s nice to save the not inconsiderable cost of train fares and either hotel rooms or rail/tube costs if I stay with friends. I can also make my own tea/coffee and snacks. On the other hand I lose the big screen experience and most online tickets are actually more expensive than the matinee prices I usually pay as an old person. When I got down to actually booking tickets E-tickets, I also realised that the restrictions of screening times in different venues does not totally disappear in the online context. You can check the various procedures and see the programme on the festival website here. I’ll just mention a couple of the issues.

Identifying Features (Sin Señas Particulares, Mexico-Spain 2020)

The first point is that you’ll have to use the BFI Player, which so far I’ve only used for free Archive films. The tickets are £10 or more (the usual price of BFI Player screenings I think unless you are a monthly subscriber). Secondly, the online titles are available only at set times. Some titles are showing only once and you must start viewing within 30 minutes of the designated time. Other titles are available over a 72 hour period and one is available over 96 hours. Once you start watching a film, you must complete your viewing in 3 hours. I find it difficult to watch a whole film on my desktop computer in one sitting as it is not a comfortable viewing environment. We’ll have to see how it works out. I think there are some filmmaker intros or Q&As (possibly pre-recorded?) as well as some ‘Industry Events’ and talks. The other big bonus in 2020 is that if you live outside London, there are some cinemas in major cities which are screening a small number of the high profile LFF films during the festival.

I’ve followed my usual strategy of ignoring anything American or mainstream UK and anything that will obviously get a UK release. Instead, I tend to go for Latin America, Africa, Asia and smaller European film industries. This year I’ve gone for films from Mexico, Argentina, Iran, Bangladesh, China, Czech Republic and Ireland. The Iranian film is an archive restoration and it’s free, like two other archive picks. I’ll let you know how the experience works out in a few weeks time (screenings from 10-16 October). Whatever happens, kudos for BFI Festival organisers in getting things organised. Buying the tickets, at least, proved to be painless.


  1. john David hall

    I have been trying to book for a few LFF films at the cinemas myself, and did manage to nab a couple of seats for ‘Shirley’ at the reduced capacity NFT on the first Saturday, but only by booking on the first day that access was granted to the great unwashed non-members. I saw seats vanishing during the time I was booking, and two of the three performances were sold out before I finished.
    Browsing through the catalogue of films seemingly on offer I was disappointed multiple times to find that my prospective choice was only available on BFI player within a select half-hour slot. I suppose this is one way to grant the virtual audience the feeling of attending a festival screening but it holds no appeal whatsoever for me. I note that one of the films that I did not get to see at the 2019 LFF, ‘Clemency’ with Alfre Woodard, has actually managed to make it to the reopened Media Museum next week. I was there to watch ‘Nocturnal’ this week at Pictureville and will be popping along next week too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Roy Stafford

      Interesting comments John and I’ll comment on the restricted access to online screenings at LFF in my reply to Keith. I would be with you at Pictureville but I’m not risking travelling into Bradford city centre at the moment for personal medical reasons.


  2. keith1942

    I gather that streaming programmes frequently have a limited number of viewers; just like cinemas. Il Cinema Ritrovato this year offered the programme for a set fee but then viewers had to book a slot for any particular title.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in October, which uses the same streaming platform as Il Ritrovato, also involves a set fee but titles are available for 24 hours. I assume that this will mean there is less of a problem about numbers.
    The Kennington Bioscope has been offering streaming of early titles, with live music, on You Tube and the programmes remain on You Tube for subsequent viewing.
    I assume that these restrictions are due to the lmited bandwidth on offer for any particular platform. Kino Klassica have been offering weekly titles from the Soviet Union, Russia and olther states in Eastern Europe which remain on offer for seven days. However the couple I tried suffered from ‘buffering’; that is when the streams stops and runs with jerks and other problems.
    I note the London Festival is charging for individual titles at a rate similar to a visit to cinema. However, apart from any domestic limitations the quality is considerably lower. As far as I can establish streaming platforms offer a quality lower than Blu-Ray. And I wonder how much labour power, which determines value, is used in streaming compared with cinemas. And the income generated will not circulate round the industry to the extent that it would with actual exhibition.
    I think there are quite a few issues that need discussion. And, as with the whole digital change-over, the industry is rather parlous in providing detailed information.


    • Roy Stafford

      You make some important points here Keith and I agree that we need much more discussion of a whole range of issues connected to online screenings and the wider implications for the film industry and for film culture I’ll respond to just two points briefly.

      You make reference to festivals that are concerned with archive films and restorations in the main (perhaps exclusively) and to films legally available on YouTube. The London Film Festival is offering its archive screenings at no cost, but they still require booking. All its other screenings are of films either already sold for distribution or with rights available from sales agents. These screenings have to be limited according to the deals made with rights owners, thus the different time periods when they are available (once only, for 72 hours and for 96 hours). YouTube runs its own VOD rental service but the legally uploaded films from Kino Klassics (and other agencies such as the Korean Film Council etc.) are not streamed as such and are available free to watch.

      The restrictions are due to rights conditions rather than bandwith concerns I think. You also raise bandwith as an issue re commercial streaming services and the quality of prints. During the Covid pandemic there has been a great deal of pressure on bandwidth generally and I think that some websites and streaming services have reduced quality at certain times. However, your claim about ‘less than Blu-ray quality’ for streaming services is still something I would dispute and we’ve had this argument before. The quality of prints on any streaming service as viewed in the home is based on at least four different factors: the original resolution of the digital file, the the streaming service’s decision on the screen resolution it makes available, the bandwidth of the signal entering the house, college, cinema etc. and the device which displays the signal. If you are suffering from buffering the problem could be any combination of the last three. My own experience using MUBI over the last few years, along with various online Festival screenings, is that HD prints used for streaming display at the same quality as Blu-ray on my computer or TV screen.

      The point you make about the labour input in creating digital prints and streaming them is certainly an important discussion question as is the question of the carbon footprint of streaming as a practice. I also agree that major streamers such as Netflix, Amazon and Apple need to produce more detailed information about their operations and their subscriber numbers etc.


  3. keith1942

    Thank you for the comments Roy. I will check out the archive titles at the London Film Festival.
    Regarding your other comments. It is true that a whole number of archives affiliated to the International Federation of Film Archives have made content available for free during the pandemic. But that is not because they are unaffected by rights issues and other costs. Many of the surviving titles from early cinema are still subject to copyright. In the USA pre-1920s titles are in the public domain but that does not apply to the same titles in Britain. And, of course, the archives also have resource and labour costs. Moreover, even if under copyright, exhibition of a title in a different formats does not necessarily incur the same costs.
    As for the ‘windows’ on viewing; this is a a restriction on access that is the devil of the film industry. In Britain other industries like brewing have had their restrictive practices curtailed but no-one has got round to applying equal rules to the film industry. The European Union has restricted companies like Facebook for practices that are equivalently used in film distribution.
    I note you say we have argued about streaming before; I know that we disagree but I do not think we have actually argued over the technicalities. The quality of a title streamed is affected by several factors but a key one is ‘bit-rate’. Before the pandemic I checked out Netflix and Prime and both were lower than the equivalents in Blu-Ray. For other streaming platform it is difficult to determine what the bit-rate is; the BFI press release on their ‘video-on-demand’ does not supply this information. I would be interested to know if it is available elsewhere.
    And I am curious about your comment on Kino Klassica; if they are not streaming what process are they using?
    As always my objections are less to the format being made available; for many people this is a real opportunity. It is to the lack of information provided by companies. If what they offer is a good as the hype they use to market it, why are they so chary of providing the digital information on the process.


    • Roy Stafford

      My mistake re Kino Klassika. I wasn’t aware of the scheme earlier this year which streamed films. I was under the impression that there was a YouTube Channel using that name but I see now that although such a channel exists, it doesn’t show archive features. However I have discovered the Moscow Studio (Mosfilm) Channel which includes some films that are in HD with English subtitles (probably provided by YouTube): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KmS5gk4ve4 This seems to be a well-regarded 1985 romantic comedy.


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