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Geneva Puts Itself on the Map With Digital Initiative

Operating a mid-tiered European festival within the fall corridor means confronting a certain truth: There are a number of other festivals with similar programming mandates, and all are competing for eyes and attention.

Confronted with this intractable fact, Geneva Intl. Film Festival director Emmanuel Cuenod has spent the past several years working to develop for his festival a sharp identity on the larger circuit. As GIFF has furthered its reputation as a home for digital innovation, Cuenod and his team have sought to leverage that brand throughout the calendar year.

“I don’t consider the festival as a ten-day event,” explains Cuenod, “but something closer to the Sundance or Tribeca Institutes. I see it as a skill center that lends other institutions its knowledge and skill throughout the year, with lots of collaboration.”

To that end, the GIFF team has developed the PLUGS program, their curatorial arm that reaches out and connects with other festivals across the globe. Over the past two years, GIFF has coordinated with Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinema and Austin’s South By Southwest, as well as local festivals in Locarno and Neuchatel, to run pavilions spotlighting Swiss digital innovation. “We tried to do so in a way that would really bring something singular to each of our partners,” adds Cuenod, “something different than what he simply showed at GIFF, because we found it too weird to offer other festivals stuff we’d already shown here.”

Cuenod is particularly proud of GIFF’s work at Cannes, where his team partnered with development fund Engagement Migros to showcase local innovations at the French festival’s NEXT Pavilion. “For three years in a row, we were able to show the best of Swiss creativity, and more importantly, we helped sell several projects,” notes Cuenod.

Among those projects was the flying simulator “Birdly” from Zurich based tech company Somniacs, who sold their last project to France’s MK2 and who will return to GIFF with their next VR experience, “Jurassic Flight.” For his part, Cuenod’s experience in Cannes proved to him that the PLUGS program could play an effective role in an evolving digital marketplace.

At the same time, recent experience has also taught him to slow down a bit. While the PLUGS initiative programmed a handful of installation during its first year, it accepted many more festival invites the following one. “It completely exploded,” marvels Cuenod. “We did so many last year that we had to limit the number going forward. We realized that it almost put the festival itself in danger. We did 15 last year, and it was too much, it became a business onto itself.”

Going forward, PLUGS will continue its efforts at the major festivals and will curate an upcoming exhibit for a museum of contemporary art, if stepping off too onerous a workload. Still, Cuenod sees the inherent appeal of such a program. “When a festival or an institution accepted to work together with us,” he reflects, “and recognized that we wanted to develop these projects not only with them, but for them and for their publics, that really helped diminish whatever natural competition might have developed.”

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