Edinburgh fest readies radical shift

Critics call for move back to August slot

EDINBURGH — As the Edinburgh Film Festival gears up for its fourth June edition, calls are growing within the U.K. film industry for a return to its original August date in order to revive its flagging fortunes.

But new fest director James Mullighan is hoping that this year’s experimental program, with fewer films, no prizes or red carpets but more live multimedia events, will convince the skeptics that the fest has a flourishing future in June.

Edinburgh moved its date in 2008 in a bid to raise its profile by escaping from the shadow of the arts festival, which swamps the Scottish capital in August.

But instead, the fest is struggling as a standalone event on a limited budget to sustain its ability to attract industry, press and public.

Distribs, sales agents and producers claim that the new date puts the fest too close to Cannes and too far from the prime fall season for releasing indie films, blunting its effectiveness as a launchpad — especially as it no longer benefits from the national media focus on the Edinburgh Arts Festival in August.

“Moving back to August is 100% the best thing to do,” says Rupert Preston of Vertigo Films. “As an underfunded festival at the wrong time of year, there’s a vicious circle where it doesn’t get the talent, the press or the films, so it becomes slightly irrelevant. It’s becoming just another regional festival, like Bradford or Leeds.”

The date switch was prompted by the now-defunct U.K. Film Council, which offered the fest £1.8 million ($3 million) over three years, roughly a 50% increase in its budget, to reposition itself as Europe’s answer to Sundance, a “festival of discovery” for emerging indie talent.

But now UKFC funding has ended, leaving the Edinburgh fest worse off than before and forced to reinvent itself once again. Sharp budget cuts, the exit of its previous artistic director, managing director and chairman, and the rise of the rival Glasgow festival have battered its public image.

Making a virtue out of financial necessity, the new management has seized the opportunity to tear up the old format, cutting the program by 40% and scaling back the glitz, kudos and hospitality, in the hope of generating a different kind of buzz through closer interaction with the audience.

Inspired by a radical creative blueprint from artistic advisors Mark Cousins, Tilda Swinton and Lynda Myles, Mullighan is piloting an extensive program of events, debates and performances in unusual locations across the city.

This includes using Edinburgh U’s informatics lab Inspace to investigate the connections between science and cinema; a link-up with the Frontline Club for journalists to examine war reporting on film; a 24-hour event probing “spatial politics” curated by architect Markus Meissen; and day-long symposium on cinephilia.

“We have deliberately and boldly tried lots of new paradigms because we want to innovate the festival and the community around it,” says Mullighan. “Afterward we’ll sit down and discuss what worked, and what didn’t.

“I’d like to think we don’t give up on June. You can get a hotel room, and the restaurants haven’t put their prices up 30%. All the buildings we’re using wouldn’t be available in August.”

But critics disagree. “I don’t think it’s an industry film festival any more,” counters one indie distrib and longtime Edinburgh fest supporter. “They are more interested in producing a local festival with a mixed range of art forms than in national connections with the film industry. Nobody in the industry wants it in June.”

Axing the award for best British film was particularly unpopular with distribs. That strained relationship is reflected in this year’s threadbare program of new movies, with few hot premieres and many lukewarm films already widely exposed on the festival circuit.

This year’s 65th anniversary edition, which runs June 15-26, was unable to secure Scottish helmer Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” starring Swinton, because of its October release date. Its splashiest world premiere, David Hare’s “Page Eight,” is a TV movie, albeit with a glittering pedigree.

Opening night will screen John Michael McDonagh’s “The Guard,” previously seen at Sundance, Berlin and Tribeca. There’s even one film in this year’s lineup, Lucy Walker’s “Countdown to Zero,” which screened at last year’s Edinburgh fest.

“We’ve got a very big rebuilding to do with the industry,” Mullighan acknowledges. Having only taken up the job in February, he admits this year’s fest is a work in progress.

“I couldn’t flip it into the festival that I wanted it to be in just four months,” he says. “I want (the festival) to be a sandbox, or Petri dish, for big creative or content organizations and brands to come and experiment with a complimentary film program alongside. In late June or early July, I look forward to putting to the senior executives on the board what I would do over the next three years to rebuild the festival to truly international heights once more. We’ll write a road map to build up the festival in June, but if they say move back to August, that’s what we’ll do.”

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