The BFI London Film Festival has enjoyed mixed fortunes with its opening night slot in recent years. They lucked out in 2008 and 2009, securing highly anticipated world premieres in “Frost/Nixon” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” attracting unprecedented international media attention to a festival that had never been noted for such publicity coups: its chief purpose, after all, is to bring the highlights of Cannes, Venice, Toronto and the like to local film buffs who don’t have the luxury of festival-trotting for a living.
It was an exciting development, but it couldn’t last: for the last two years, former LFF director Sandra Hebron kicked off the festival with films that had already premiered in Toronto. And while “Never Let Me Go” was a respectable choice — if a bit on the glum side for curtain-raising duties — last year’s choice of Fernando Meirelles’s dismal, critically savaged “360” (which only recently slumped in and out of US and UK cinemas) was calamitous.
In that respect, Hebron set her Australian successor, Clare Stewart, a pretty low bar to clear. Happily, one needn’t have seen “Frankenweenie” to know that she’s done so pretty comfortably.
It was announced this morning that the Tim Burton’s monochrome 3D stop-motion comedy will be doing the honors on October 10, and even if it isn’t a world premiere (Fantastic Fest gets that privilege in late September, at least setting a shorter window than if it were a Toronto title), it’s a suitably high-profile get that also complies with the unwritten rule that a festival opener should be at least a little bit fun. Meanwhile, in an unprecedented move, the Opening Night film will be screened at 30 cinemas across the city, allowing more ticket-buyers to share in the festivities. Says Stewart:
Funny, dark and whimsical, this gloriously crafted, stop-motion 3D animation from Tim Burton – the reigning prince of outsiders – playfully turns the Frankenstein story on its bolted-on head. Frankenweenie is a perfect choice of opener – it”s a film about the magic of movies from one of cinema”s great visionaries. Tim Burton has chosen London as his home city and hundreds of talented British craftspeople have contributed to this production. To host the European Premiere, to present The Art of Frankenweenie Exhibition and to take our Opening Night out to 30 screens means we are making the Festival even more accessible for film fans across the UK.
Stewart previously energized the Sydney Film Festival, significantly raising its public profile. Bubbly and no-bullshit, she’s a markedly different personality from the widely beloved Hebron, her programming reputedly characterized by a sense of humor and a popular touch. Both seem evident in the choice of “Frankenweenie,” which will be looking to kick off the London fest on the same cheerily skew-whiff note that fellow stop-motion feature “Fantastic Mr. Fox” did three years ago. (The film has already been screening for critics; I haven’t seen it myself yet, but I hear positive murmurings from colleagues.)
Prior to the news of the opening film, two significant announcements had already been made regarding changes to the festival under Stewart’s steerage. First, by running from 10 to 21 October, the LFF is going to be four days shorter than usual, with screenings spread around more venues in different corners of London — a simultaneous concentration and dispersion strategy designed to heighten public awareness. Second, the former, geographically-based strands of the programme (European Cinema, British Cinema, etc) are to be replaced by more abstract, emotionally-themed ones — Love, Dare, Debate and the like.
Both innovations have met with resistance in some quarters, though I sympathise with the newcomer’s position. Unlike, say, recently appointed Edinburgh Film Festival head Chris Fujiwara, who took on a festival that had effectively been run into the ground by misguided administrators and required rebuilding from scratch, Stewart has inherited a well-liked, well-oiled machine from Hebron. It would be easy to continue running it in the same fashion, but any new director should want to make the festival their own to some extent; even at this early stage, Stewart is making her presence felt. I’m looking forward to seeing what she has up her sleeve when the full London programme is announced on September 5.
As for “Frankenweenie,” getting to open both Fantastic Fest and the rather more august London Film Festival makes for a nice pair of feathers in its cap, lending it credibility both with the genre crowd and the cinephile contingent. After the dreary one-two of “Alice in Wonderland” and “Dark Shadows,” could this be the film that makes us like Tim Burton again? And in a Best Animated Feature Oscar race that still has no clear frontrunner, could this double shot of festival publicity — sandwiching its October 5 release date Stateside — give it the necessary edge?