UPDATE 2021: This was written a few years ago, pre-COVID, and pre any changes the organisers have made to their systems, so bear that in mind. I haven’t updated the article as I don’t know how LFF is operating now (sadly I’m not going this year but if you are I hope you have a good time — and stay safe!)
Film festival coverage is a great way to boost your site, get access to top and upcoming filmmakers, and meet other film writers.
Easier said than done, though, right? Barriers to attending them can make them a no-go area for many, putting new writers at a further disadvantage.
Change is starting to happen, though it takes time to work its way through the system, and for solutions to turn out to be structural improvements and not just sticking plaster.
Why apply for London Film Festival press accreditation?
LFF is a friendly experience for people writing either for their own website, or for one of the bigger sites. Yes, even for old gimmers like me who predate silent movies. You can still apply for Press accreditation even if you’re not (yet) a paid writer, and there doesn’t appear to be the hierarchy you get with, say, Cannes with its colour-coded press badges. It cost me £45 to sign up for Press at LFF this year.
The benefits of visiting film festivals for press attendees are huge:
- seeing a wide variety of films.
- getting early reviews onto your website, before they’re on wide release.
- attending talks (for Press or public).
- interviewing actors and directors at the Filmmaker Teas.
- establishing relationships with film publicists, who will use the press attendee list to contact you – try and maintain these relationships after the festival.
- meeting other writers or website owners – I’ve been writing (in a variety of sectors) since 1995, and while it’s my favourite job of all time, it can be incredibly isolating.
- some Press get red carpet access to interview the stars; even if you go to the premieres as a member of the public, it’s a chance to soak up the glamour and buzz.
Applying as Press is usually straightforward, though applications close a few weeks before the festival.
And once you are actually attending screenings, DO NOT FORGET YOUR PRESS LANYARD!
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Some bloggers, I mean writers, take holiday time from work and blitz the festival for the duration, at press showings, red carpets, premieres and talks. For students and people working non-traditional hours, it often means fitting screenings in around lectures and work. There are some weekend press screenings if you work standard days and hours.
If you have children and you’re their primary or only carer it can be really tricky, especially if you need to travel in to London. In most cases press screenings tend to be first thing (from about 8.30am), lunchtime and mid-afternoon. You may need to call in favours or spend the following few weeks hosting endless playdates to make up for friends getting your kids to school or picking them up for you.
When going home by train maximise your journey time and get writing – sometimes I managed a reasonably coherent outline of a review, other times I simply brain-dumped all the themes and phrases I could come up with about the movie(s) I’d just seen. This is crucial if you’re going straight back into parent mode when you walk in the door, and/or you then have to walk straight back out again and go to work, as you will forget bits of what you’ve just seen.
Also, make the festival’s Digital Viewing Hub (see below) work for you! Keep an ear out for the buzz around some smaller independent films that turn up on there, especially if you have to pick and choose what you review to maximise your time and likely website traffic. This is where chatting to other writers in press queues or on Twitter can help.
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Increasingly, freelance and new critics are using fundraising platforms to help pay for the costs of attending film festivals. But some of the big festivals are also trying to do more – so if you can’t find information on a festival website about assistance with costs or mentoring, contact the press office and ask if there’s anything set up (“shy bairns get nowt”, as we say in Newcastle).
Still, you may have to perfect your fixed grin as yet another friend tells you how lucky you are seeing a movie for free, whether you’ve had to factor in an airfare and accommodation, or you’ve just shelled out a small fortune on a peaktime travel card to get into London to see it (I live within commuting distance of London and the costs still ramp up).
Money is probably the biggest issue for Press attendees. The £45 to register is going to be a problem for some people though it is considerably lower than some other festivals. If you’re not local you need to decide whether you want to be there in September for the press and industry screening weeks, or for the festival itself in October (which also has press screenings).
Press screenings are of course free (once you’ve got there). As Press you can also queue last-minute for free tickets to public screenings, and apply via a ballot the day before for the same.
Even if you live within travelling distance of London it can get very expensive – especially getting to the early Press showings which tend to start around 8.30-9.00am. It’s worth seeing several press screenings in one day if you can, or picking a run of two or three days and sleeping on a friend’s sofa for a couple of nights while watching everything you can get to during the day.
You can download the timetables of press showing from the LFF press area – do that as soon as they’re available and work out how many days you’ll be in London, as it may be cheaper to get a weekly travel pass.
There are also Filmmaker Teas where you can meet and talk to directors and actors, which actually come with (posh!) teas. Seriously, if your a skint student blogger head for the food table and get some tasty sandwiches and scones down you.
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When To Go
Before the festival starts in October, there are a couple of weeks of screenings for Press and Industry attendees in September, with Press getting priority (I was the very last person to get into the Assassination Nation screening and yes there were some industry people left outside, though this year the BFI had building work going on at the same time which meant available screening rooms were reduced).
It’s a really useful way to get ahead of yourself with your write-ups before the madness of the festival proper starts, especially if you just want to watch and review some films.
But the festival itself is an experience with lots going on in terms of filmmaking talks and events as well as watching movies.
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The September ones in 2018 were at the BFI, and the festival ones were around Leicester Square (check your timetable so you’re going to the right one!) Keep an eye on your email, this year the LFF organisers were very good at keeping us updated about extra screenings, daily emails, etc.
I often went from one (Vue) to another (Central Picturehouse) and got a place near the front of the queue for the next one even if there was over an hour in between. Chat to other queuers or sit on the floor and write up your notes; the time goes surprisingly quickly.
Regarding embargoes, unless the film is having its world premiere at the festival, reviews can usually go up as soon as they are ready. For world premieres you’ll be told you have to wait until the red carpet premiere that evening has started or finished. At one screening I had to sign an embargo form and agree to no comments on social media until the deadline as well.
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Digital Viewing Hub
Yes you can watch LFF movies at home for free! The Hub doesn’t have the big showcasing movies on there but there are always lots of smaller movies and short films, including several which break out and become critical and/or commercial hits.
It can also be invaluable if you’ve missed an early press screening for a film but then want to chat to the director at one of the Filmmaker Teas; this year I saw The Fight, the directoral debut of Jessica Hynes on the Hub beforehand as the press screening itself clashed with the tea.
Sometimes films are added or removed from the Hub during the festival, so try to see them as soon as you can. Having said that, the Hub is usually live for a couple of weeks beyond the end of LFF which gives you breathing space – in 2017 I watched / reviewed Princess Cyd on the last day, and it’s been one of my best performing indie reviews since then.
I did meet one attendee whose wifi in his AirBnB was so poor he couldn’t watch anything on the Hub while at LFF so ask about broadband when you book your accommodation!
And be aware that some films are removed from the Hub before it shuts down, if they get a distributor for example.
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The Filmmaker Teas are worth attending; you’ll be sent a list of attendees and timings, and just email back to apply for a slot to speak to directors or performers. Sometimes these are 10 minute one-to-ones, other times it’ll be a round table.
Having said that, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Directors do cancel for lots of reasons, so don’t get too excited by a big name or someone you really want to interview. Try to watch one or two of the other films so if your chosen director or performer pulls out you can still talk to someone. Last year I heard while en route to London that Joachim Trier, who directed Thelma, had pulled out, and I screwed up by not having seen anything by the other attending directors. (Although some creators are perfectly happy to chat to you even if you haven’t seen their film, I always prefer to have a better grasp of their work – and actually last year the one other director there I wanted to speak to, only wanted to talk to people who had seen their film.)
This year Jason Reitman, at the festival with Hugh Jackman-starrer The Front Runner, had to cancel a few days before.
Bear in mind the teas can get very noisy – tables are in one room close together, and there are lots of interviewers and interviewees chatting at the same time. I usually use an app on my phone to record interviews, but though so far it has coped with super-loud cafes, even it was defeated by the Filmmaker Tea. Luckily the other attendee at my Jessica Hynes round (triangular?) table chat had a good microphone (which I am now going to invest in myself of course) and sent me a recording afterwards. Transcribing is a pain at the best of times but especially where you can’t hear them properly.
There are also filmmaker panels at these events which can be interesting.
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Meeting Other Critics
Obviously, the usual safety warnings for meeting people you only know from online apply.
Everyone I’ve met has been lovely; though just because you follow someone online who shares your love of [insert obscure film reference / Back To The Future II here], it doesn’t make them nice in real life. Keep your wits about you as you usually would.
Okay, mum lecture over.
There were quite a few informal drinks meet-ups popping up, which I didn’t go to as I had to get back to my children, plus I’m 842 years old, plus I fall over after one white wine spritzer.
There are also a couple of DJ nights put on for Press and Industry by the LFF organising team.
You can still meet up with writers you know of in queues, for coffees etc, or just for a quick chat if you spot them in screenings before the film starts.
I found having my actual photo on my social media profiles helped a lot, as did tweeting my description to anyone else who was going to a screening: “blonde hair, red dress, blue ankle support, limp” made me pretty identifiable.
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I’m no expert, and all the film festivals I’ve been to are different – and feel different. Cannes Film Festival, which takes over the whole town, has a very different vibe to New York. I have, though, been to three of the big film festivals in the last 15 months. (There are, of course, lots of smaller festivals, including some really excellent genre-specific ones.) Check out my thoughts on Cannes 2018 and my Cannes press tips, my trip to 2017’s New York Film Festival, plus my London Film Festival 2018 round-up.
This year Toronto Film Festival specifically went looking for critics from under-represented groups. And Sundance has pledged to ensure a minimum of 20% of its top press accreditations go to those groups too. Both are offering some funding to help with costs too. Some festivals (including New York and London) have mentoring schemes for young (or new) film writers.
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