Can Edinburgh come back from brink?

Fujiwara, Hay bring expertise, leadership to troubled fest

EDINBURGH — After last year’s PR disaster, the Edinburgh Film Festival is bidding to revive its fortunes under a new artistic director, New York-born critic Chris Fujiwara, and a new CEO, former Scottish Screen topper Ken Hay.

Both are under contract only for this year, yet the future of the fest rests in their hands after the deep damage the fest’s reputation suffered last year, after the event was hyped as a radical experiment to re-invent the festival format, but instead delivered a threadbare lineup, with guest curators who failed to show up and happenings that failed to happen.

So far, at least, the signs are promising for this year’s fest, which unspools June 20-July 1. Reaction from the U.K. film industry and from regular festgoers to Fujiwara’s program has been positive, while Hay’s assured leadership has restored a mood of confidence and harmony, in welcome contrast to the backbiting, in-fighting and buck-passing that surrounded last year’s debacle.

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Fujiwara, who lived in Tokyo before moving to Edinburgh in January, has written books on filmmakers as diverse as Jacques Tourneur, Otto Preminger and Jerry Lewis. He has drawn deeply on his well of knowledge, and his expertise in Asian cinema in particular, to pack the lineup with intriguing names unfamiliar to all but the most committed cinephiles. These include Chinese documentarian Wang Bing, Japanese auteur Shinji Somai, early Hollywood comedy helmer Gregory La Cava, and Khavn de la Cruz, among the leaders of the Philippine New Wave, to which Fujiwara is devoting a whole section of his festival.

While there are the usual smattering of titles from Venice, Sundance, Berlin and Cannes, these are mainly drawn from the overlooked corners of those festivals. There are 19 world premieres, mostly British and American films, to reinforce the impression of freshness and give the promise of genuine discovery. Fewer than 25 of the 121 films already have U.K. distributors.

The Michael Powell Award for best British film is back this year after being spiked last year. Ten titles will compete, including seven world premieres: Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio,” Katarzyna Klimkiewicz’s “Flying Blind,” Maja Borg’s “Future My Love,” John Roberts’ “Day of the Flowers,” Alex Barrett’s “Life Just Is,” Penny Woolcock’s “One Mile Away” and Luis Prieto’s “Pusher.”

It’s a bold move to rely on the thrill of the unknown to drive ticket sales and media interest. Yet strong advance bookings numbers indicate healthy audience interest.

The question is whether this will be enough to reverse the fest’s downward trend since the controversial decision to move from its historic date in August, during the Edinburgh arts festival, to a standalone slot in June. Sales peaked at 51,000 in 2008, the first June edition, but slid to 34,000 last year, when a 50% budget cut to £1 million ($1.6 million) resulted in the program being slashed in half to just 50 films.

This year’s budget has been bumped up to $2.4 million, thanks partly to renewed funding from the British Film Institute, but that’s still a paltry figure compared with other European summer festivals of similar stature, such as Locarno and Karlovy Vary.

Hay has laid down a challenge to the U.K. film industry and Scottish politicians to throw greater support behind Edinburgh, if they want it to survive and flourish as an international flagship for Scotland and the U.K.

If Fujiwara and Hay succeed in their mission to restore Edinburgh’s tarnished reputation, it will provide a foundation for growth for both the fest and its parent, the Center of the Moving Image. With the fest now firmly fixed in June, one idea is to launch an additional film confab in August, akin to the Edinburgh TV Festival, giving industry leaders a forum to debate hot topics while enjoying the highlights of the city’s arts jamboree.

But that’s for the future. The first priority is to deliver a film festival that works.

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