EIFF gets room to breathe

Move to June risky, but plays to bigger ambitions

EDINBURGH — What if they threw a film festival and no one turned up?

Neither artistic director Hannah McGill nor managing director Ginnie Atkinson would admit to any such nightmares about the decision to move the Edinburgh Intl. Film Festival from August to June.

But there’s no doubt the world’s longest continually running film fest has gambled its very existence by divorcing itself from Edinburgh’s famous arts festival, which occupies every nook of the Scottish capital throughout August.

The 62nd edition of the EIFF takes place June 18-29, a month after Cannes and before Europe heads off on its summer vacation. Hotel rooms and exhibition spaces in Edinburgh will be plentiful, and much cheaper than in high season. Finally, the fest will have room to breathe.

It was a brave move to strike out into unchartered waters, but a necessary one. For years, the EIFF has been sheltered yet also starved of oxygen by the larger arts shindig, which floods Edinburgh with tourists and journalists every August.

Atkinson, McGill and their board have a greater vision for the EIFF to become a truly world-class festival in its own right, the “Sundance of Europe,” with real clout to forge careers for new talent from the U.K. and beyond.

The U.K. Film Council has committed $3.5 million over three years to help realize this ambition, with another $1.5 million coming from Scottish Screen. The fest’s budget this year is $3.8 million, up from $2.4 million last year and just $1.8 million the year before.

It is — as Ken Hay, chief exec of Scottish Screen, admitted at the program launch in early May — a risk, but one they’re all willing to take.

And despite its venerable age, risk is what the EIFF is all about. It lies at the heart of its program, packed with films that experiment and probe, many by new or unfamiliar talent.

“I don’t see the point of telling people what they already know,” McGill says. “I’m paid to tell people what they don’t know.”

The fest’s own research reveals the EIFF audience to be overwhelmingly “avid risk-takers” or “cautious gamblers” — the kind of people who are prepared to buy 10 tickets to movies they know nothing about.

The organizers expect the demographic to shift this year, with more locals and an even younger, edgier skew than usual. Ticket sales in August reached around 55,000. Atkinson says she would count it a success to match that figure at this edition. But no one can be sure who or how many will turn up. “This whole year is about benchmarking,” Atkinson says.

She’s keen not to raise expectations too high. The fest is operating under a three-year plan, and year one is not about a dramatic transformation but about putting down roots for future growth.

McGill insists her first priority is to program for the paying public, with press and industry only a secondary consideration. Yet the EIFF is using its expanded budget to lure more journalists from London and Europe. As one PR maven succinctly puts it, “Without the media, a festival doesn’t really exist.”

In the past, distribs were unhappy at the lack of press for anything except opening night, and so they will be looking for an improvement this year. “Because there isn’t this enormous crush of arts coverage, you can be confident that smaller films will get more attention,” McGill promises.

Several distribs are using this year’s EIFF as a launchpad for their quirky summer counterprogramming to the Hollywood blockbusters. Yet McGill notes the June date seems to have liberated her from the tyranny of U.K. release schedules. Sales agents have been far more willing to supply films that don’t already have U.K. distribution, in the belief that they are more likely to attract notice.

There’s a more prosaic reason, too. “French sales agents would never come in August because they were all on holiday,” McGill says.

The availability of venues, usually booked solid in August, is also opening up fresh horizons. The Traverse Theater, across the road from the fest’s Filmhouse HQ, will be used for many events, including three staged readings of film scripts by the National Theater of Scotland. Comedy venue the Gilded Balloon will host the opening-night party.

McGill and Atkinson have done their best to hang up the streamers and lay out the smorgasbord. Now they just need to keep their fingers crossed that everyone shows up.

June 18-29
Where: Edinburgh, Scotland
Web: edfilmfest.org.uk

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