A brief history of the BFI London Film Festival

Sixty years after its first edition, we go back through the decades to chart the vibrant history of the BFI London Film Festival.

Cars arriving at the second London Film Festival, 1958

As beginnings go, it is as humble as it is auspicious. At a dinner party at the home of Sunday Times film critic Dilys Powell, guests including British Film Institute director James Quinn were bemoaning the lack of a film festival in London. From that conversation among (admittedly influential) friends was born the London Film Festival, which launched on the Southbank in 1957 at the BFI’s National Film Theatre (now BFI Southbank).

While the Festival may have grown considerably over the years, since that very first edition it has brought the best in world cinema to a demanding, culture-hungry audience at Southbank and beyond. Indeed, the first film ever to be shown in the Festival was Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957) and, of the 15 international works that made up that first programme, nine went on to receive theatrical release in the UK.

Sixty years on, and the LFF is now as devoted to home-grown filmmakers and new discoveries as it is to established masters, and has developed into one of the most essential, diverse and highly regarded festivals in the global calendar. We plot a course through its vivid history.

The 1950s

The Seventh Seal (1957)
1st London Film Festival programme, 1957

Just one day after Princess Margaret opened the British Film Institute’s brand new cinema under an arch of Waterloo Bridge on London’s Southbank, it played host to the inaugural London Film Festival. Crafted by the BFI and original collaborators The Sunday Times (who exited after one year over disagreements about location) to be a ‘festival of festivals’, the LFF was initially dedicated to showing winning films from the likes of Cannes, Venice and Berlin.

And so it was that there were no British films screened in the first few editions (although shorts commissioned by Pearl and Dean and the London Transport Commission did appear), rather international fare such as, in the first year alone, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria and Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd.

While the LFF remained determinedly non-competitive for four decades, in its second year it introduced the annual Sutherland Trophy, named after BFI patron George Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, fifth Duke of Sutherland, to be presented at the LFF to the maker of the most most original first or second feature introduced at the National Film Theatre during the previous year. (In 1997, the criteria changed to include titles screened only during the LFF itself.) Marking the Festival’s international flavour, the winner of the first trophy in 1958 was Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

Did you know?

At the third LFF in 1959, director François Truffaut turned up to the screening of his film Les Quatre Cents Coups without a ticket and unable to speak English. He managed to charm the ushers, who found him a seat in the audience.

The 1960s

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962)

While films from Italy and France once again dominated the fourth edition of the LFF in 1960, such as François Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura, it was also the first edition of the Festival to feature a British film: Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.

The 13th London Film Festival poster

And it was a British film, Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, that featured as the first midnight matinee in 1962; that same year’s lineup included Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water and Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie.

In 1963, the Lincoln Centre for the Performing Arts based the New York Film Festival on the London pattern but, by the mid-1960s, the LFF’s success had garnered such huge interest in European productions that prize-winners from other festivals were being brought for distribution before the BFI could get the rights to show them. By necessity, the shape of the LFF began to change, and it began to incorporate lesser-known or debut features under the banner ‘London Choices’; the first of these included Swedish director Lars Magnus Lindgren’s Dear John.

The 1960s also saw one of the LFF’s most notorious moments when, in 1968, it showed Godard’s first English-language film, One Plus One, as a London Choice. When producer Iain Quarrier took to the stage to explain why he had tinkered with the ending, the director launched across the stage and punched him in the face.

Did you know?

In 1967, the LFF presented feature films directed by women for the first time: Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, Agnès Varda’s Les Créatures and Vera Chytilová’s Daisies.

The 1970s

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
20th London Film Festival poster

By the 1970s, the LFF had established itself as the home of undiscovered gems alongside European festival hits; indeed, at the 1970 Festival, only seven of the 28 films shown had secured UK distribution before they spooled at Southbank. And it was at the 1970 Festival that audiences first experienced David Lynch, with his short film The Grandmother, and witnessed Werner Herzog’s verbal altercation with an audience member with dwarfism who took offence to his film Even Dwarfs Started Small.

It was also in the 1970s, as critical and popular interest in independent cinema began to challenge that of European arthouse, that the Festival began to expand both in size and diversity under the new directorship of Ken Wlaschin. In 1974, programmers took the bold decision to show Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which – in line with classification guidelines – had to be restricted to BFI members only. (The same occurred with Walerian Borowczyk’s The Beast in 1975 and Pier Paolo Pasolini’s controversial horror art film Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom in 1977.)

Despite its expansion, the LFF resisted calls for more rigid categorisation; in his introduction to the 1976 Festival, Wlaschin stated that the policy of the LFF was “to show the development of world cinema in an open way without preconceptions”. 

Did you know?

After John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 was shown in the Action Cinema strand at the 1977 Festival, its positive feedback saw it acquire theatrical distribution throughout Europe and the USA, launching Carpenter’s career.

The 1980s

Ran (1985)
24th London Film Festival poster

In 1980, the same year that LFF audience members were enthralled by a lecture about the problem of colour-fading given by Martin Scorsese, whose Raging Bull closed the Festival, a screening of Kevin Brownlow’s reconstruction of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927), complete with the Wren Orchestra playing a new score by Carl Davis, wowed audiences at the Empire Leicester Square.

In 1984, film critic Derek Malcolm took over directorship of the Festival, the same year that Sheila Whitaker became head of programming at the BFI’s National Film Theatre, and, through his short tenure, continued to widen its range and reach. Throughout the decade the LFF programmed a broad mix of films now considered classics, from John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday (1980) and Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) to John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981) and Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984).

Performances also occurred at more outside venues than ever before and introduced the concept of Festival on the Square, with evening screenings at West End cinemas, and the Surprise Film, which remains a firm favourite to this day. Malcolm’s 1985 edition of the Festival presented 160 films attracting record attendance, and 70 per cent of the films shown sold for UK cinema or TV distribution.

After Whitaker took over the Festival in 1986, the number of programme strands continued to expand and the LFF took up permanent residence in Odeon West End, alongside Southbank, for the entire festival run.

Did you know?

In order to highlight the ‘coming of age of new British Cinema’, the 1982 LFF had four independent British films opening the Festival on the same night: Mai Zetterling’s Scrubbers, Peter Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract, Barney Platts-Mills’ Hero and Claude Whatham’s The Captain’s Doll.

The 1990s

Natural Born Killers (1994)
35th London Film Festival poster

By the 1990s, the LFF had grown substantially to programme a far-reaching range of films across all nationalities and genres. These included controversial releases like Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers in 1994 and David Cronenberg’s Crash in 1996, both of which had to be specially approved by Westminster Council for screening in the Festival.

In 1997 a new team, headed by Adrian Wootton as director and Sandra Hebron as festival programmer, offered up more than 150 features and 70 shorts, with emphasis given to new British works and gala screenings as well as an expanded restorations strand. That year, the LFF had more than 100,000 admissions and, in 1998, the Festival expanded its reach by not only increasing the number of London venues to accommodate a larger number of films, but by choosing selected highlights to screen in cinemas across the UK.

By the end of the decade, LFF’s status as a purveyor of the best of world, popular and independent cinema was firmly cemented, with audiences now used to seeing a world-class standard of films like Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days (1995), Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999) and Sam Mendes’ American Beauty (1999).

Did you know?

Major filmmakers with debut features in the festival during the 1990s included Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, LFF 1994), Shane Meadows (Small Time, LFF 1996) and Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, LFF 1999).

The 2000s

The Last King of Scotland (2006)
The 49th BFI London Film Festival programme, 2005

By 2001, the LFF had widened further to include around 180 features but still remained committed to its original goal of encouraging exhibitors and distributors to release international and homegrown Festival titles in the UK. As such, it continued to champion the work of new and established directors, such as Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, 2000), Stephen Frears (Dirty Pretty Things, 2002), Jane Campion (In the Cut, 2003), Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardener, 2005), Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, 2006) and Sam Taylor-Wood (Nowhere Boy, 2009).

Sandra Hebron assumed the directorship in 2003, when the BFI was integrated into the Festival’s title, becoming the BFI London Film Festival. Significant transformations continued under her leadership, including the introduction of a new standalone awards ceremony in 2009 to better highlight the work of the filmmakers, and included trophies for Best Film and Best British Newcomer, alongside the already-established Sutherland Trophy and Grierson Award for Best Documentary.

The ceremony also formally incorporated the presentation of BFI Fellowships at the Festival. The inaugural awards went to Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet (Best Film) and The Scouting Book for Boys screenwriter Jack Thorne (Best British Newcomer), with first Fellowships awarded to Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cissé and actor John Hurt.

Did you know?

In 2008, the Festival line-up included Hunger, the feature debut of Steve McQueen, whose third film 12 Years a Slave would go on to win the best picture Oscar and best film BAFTA for 2013. McQueen will receive the BFI Fellowship at this year’s 60th edition of the Festival.

The 2010s

Rust and Bone (2012)
LFF programme cover 2013

In 2012, incoming director Clare Stewart, who joined from Sydney Film Festival, brought with her some notable changes that have strengthened LFF’s position on the international stage. At the centre was the introduction of a jury-judged formal competition, with awards for Best Film, Best Documentary, Best First Feature and Best British Newcomer. Competitors for Best Film that year included Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Martin McDonagh’s Seven Psychopaths, David Ayer’s End of Watch and, eventual winner, Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone.

The LFF remains a Festival for the public, now screening around 240 features and 150 short films each year from 70 or more countries. To help audiences navigate the plethora of features and shorts, Stewart instigated a new structure to the programme, with films now programmed into strands including Love, Debate, Dare and Thrill.

Since 2010, American Express has been the Festival’s principal sponsor – a vital partnership which has helped expand the Festival’s footprint across London and the rest of the UK. The LFF now extends beyond Southbank and the West End, with screenings in an increasing number of venues, and with Opening and Closing Night presentations now occurring across the UK with cinecasts from the red carpet at Odeon Leicester Square.

The Festival’s industry programme has also expanded in recent years, with more than 150 films now receiving press and industry screenings in addition to public screenings. The Festival has various initiatives which provide development and profile for emerging British talent, and in 2015 augmented its long-running Screen Talks programme with a new talk series, LFF Connects, which focuses on the future of film and how it intersects with other creative industries. Christopher Nolan and Tacita Dean gave the inaugural talk.

In 2015, the Festival championed the works of female filmmakers, with Sarah Gavron’s Suffragette as the opening film and a symposium in association with Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Similarly, 2016’s event will focus on black filmmakers and actors, opening with Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom and taking in screenings of important new and classic works including the European premiere of Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe.

Actors Carey Mulligan, Anne Marie Duff, Helena Bonham Carter and Romola Garai attend the Suffragette premiere at the Opening Night Gala during the 59th BFI London Film Festival

Indeed, as it moves towards its 60th event, the BFI London Film Festival manages to remain true to its history while ensuring it is relevant for modern audiences, and continues to look to the future of both filmmaking and film viewing.

Did you know?

Since 2014, it’s been possible to enjoy the LFF experience UK-wide on BFI Player, the BFI’s VOD service, which features a Festival digital channel showing regular red carpet action and filmmaker interviews, and offers past Festival favourites in its film collection.

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