'Fantastic' opening to London film fest

George Clooney walks red carpet at world premiere

LONDON -- George Clooney, Jason Schwartzman, John Hurt and Bill Murray rocked up alongside the great and the good from the British film industry Wednesday to see Wes Anderson and his "Fantastic Mr. Fox" kick-start the Times BFI London Film Festival. Meryl Streep -- a victim of flu -- was a no-show.

For opening night, a traditionally attractive slot for a world premiere, it was business as usual despite the fact that organizers secured the use of two theaters in London's Leicester Square.

Both venues hosted the opening-night movie, with festival brass trotting from the Odeon Leicester Square to the Empire theater across the square to make the speeches.

Moviegoers were then whisked away to a party at the Saatchi Gallery.

Festival artistic director Sandra Hebron said the selection of Anderson's stop-motion animation as the opening film was an easy choice. "We just try to find the best films around and this film really celebrates that," Hebron said.

Anderson said Dahl's book, which he co-adapted for the film, was the first book he owned. He introduced the producers and attending cast before the movie.

The opening gala marked the start of almost two weeks of gala screenings, industry discussions and all-new singing and dancing stand-alone awards ceremony.

With two brand-new awards to be dished out for the first time in the event's history -- for best film and best British newcomer -- this year's fest seeks to front up to rivals on the international film festival merry-go-round.

The event, fresh from a $2 million cash injection from the U.K. Film Council's lottery-fueled cash pool, has programmed movies with cast to get the flashbulbs popping over the coming days and is scheduling news conferences and filmmaker meets to parlay talent spotting into a higher profile.

The highest accolade the British Film Institute bestows, the BFI Fellowship, this year goes to British actor Hurt and renowned Malian filmmaker Souleymane Cisse.

This year's lineup boasts 193 features and 113 shorts unspooling alongside the usual mix of special events and expected guests.

The festival wraps Oct. 29.