Fujiwara assumes creative role at troubled event

Chris Fujiwara, the Tokyo-based American writer named last week as artistic director of the Edinburgh film festival, faces a Herculean task.

His arrival (though he won’t move to the Scottish capital until December) coincides with the exit of Gavin Miller as CEO of the Center for the Moving Image, the festival’s parent company, after just over a year in the job.

Miller is the latest casualty of this year’s fumbled attempt to revamp the EIFF on a shoestring budget, following the end of its three-year funding deal with the U.K. Film Council.

The 65th edition, which took place in June, was widely criticized as one of the worst in memory, with a threadbare program and a lack of industry buzz. The contract of first-time fest director James Mullighan, who only had four months to mount the event after a muddled appointment process, was not renewed. Miller clashed with CMI chair Leslie Hills over responsibility for the debacle.

So how bad was it? Leaving aside the crucial but subjective question of artistic quality, the hard figures present a complex picture, and indicate the scale of the challenge facing Fujiwara.

The EIFF hasn’t published its results, but insiders say the fest grossed £183,000 ($293,000), just shy of its $304,000 break-even target. That’s 13% down from 2010, but with half the number of screenings. The budget, also never announced, was only $1.36 million, down by half from the 2010 edition.

That’s a miniscule sum compared with other European film festivals of similar stature. Locarno, which runs in early August, for example, has a budget of $11 million a year.

But in financial terms, the EIFF has been running on empty for years, fuelled only by its history and goodwill. When Miller arrived in July 2010, he had to beg Creative Scotland for an immediate $240,000 to save the fest from bankruptcy; he also had to make morale-sapping staff cuts. The 2011 edition represents a triumph of financial discipline in adversity, if nothing else.

Moving the fest from August to June in 2008, driven by the Edinburgh Council and not the UKFC as generally reported, delivered a brief uptick in admissions, but sales have dropped by a third in the past three years. Distribs are calling for a return to August in 2012, but that’s looking increasingly unlikely. The fest probably can’t afford it, unless its public funders and the industry are willing to pay more for the kind of world-class event they want.

Edinburgh has now fallen to third among U.K. film festivals in terms of admissions — behind London and its upstart Scottish rival Glasgow, a more passionate cinema city with an even smaller budget, of $320,000. But the fast-growing Glasgow fest doesn’t aim for the same international industry profile, and has yet to approach Edinburgh’s historical role as a launchpad for indie talent.

By giving up prizes and red carpets, this year’s EIFF squandered its remaining credibility with distributors and sales agents, who were already reluctant to hand over their most attractive titles.

Mullighan’s failure to secure the U.K. premiere of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” — after a meeting in which he reportedly alienated distrib Artificial Eye by expressing his hope that the pic wasn’t too depressing — became emblematic of this year’s hapless approach.

Such mishaps fired up the CMI board to seek an artistic director who can restore the fest’s cinephile credentials. Fujiwara seems to fit that bill, but he never run a festival or a cinema. Cinephilia alone can’t save the EIFF, so the rapid appointment of the right CEO will be equally vital to the future, and indeed the survival, of the world’s oldest continually running film festival.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more