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Bold visions needed from new festival heads

As several major festivals recruit new artistic directors, a reminder of why these positions are crucial within the film industry.

It’s been a turbulent few weeks on the film festival circuit in Europe. First, Frederic Boyer was ousted at Cannes Directors Fortnight after two years in the role, then the BFI announced that Sandra Hebron, artistic director of the London Film Festival, was stepping down. Clare Stewart, the former head of the Sydney Film Festival, comes to the UK to assume a bigger role at the BFI with oversight over both the LFF and the BFI Southbank and BFI Imax.

This all the while against a backdrop of drama at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF) which staged a reduced 2011 event in June under the new leadership of James Mullighan. A curt announcement by EIFF parent organization the Centre For The Moving Image (CMI) followed the festival stating that the 65th event was “unique” and that EIFF 2012 would restore the Michael Powell Award, advertise for an artistic director and possibly move the festival back to August from June.

The scrutiny bestowed on these events and who runs them highlights the mysterious power that film festivals still hold over the industry, even though the majority of films programmed therein are art items which will struggle for a theatrical window beyond their festival screenings.

But festivals possess a cultural value to their cities and countries which always stirs up vigorous opinion. They represent a lightning rod of international focus, tourism and spending in these communities and the right person for the leadership job is critical. It’s not an easy one: festival directors have to cater to local, national and international interests, meet film-maker, distributor, sponsor and industry needs while winning over knife-sharpening press.

Most importantly, the artistic director needs to strike up a rapport with audiences and develop a curatorial voice which the festivalgoers respond to and trust.

All this within an environment of reduced public funding, a dearth of sponsorship opportunities and the increasing employment of fee-charging by revenue-starved sales agents. No wonder festivals have become such a crucible of anxiety and tension.

For London, Hebron’s loss is a significant one since she is so widely respected. Stewart comes with a fine pedigree, having completed five years restoring luster and audiences to Sydney. She has a big personality and grand passion for cinema which won her many fans and friends on the festival circuit.

Boyer appears to have fallen foul of a political maelstrom surrounding the Cannes Film Festival and questions over the future of the Quinzaine itself. Started in 1968 as a forum for alternative cinema, the section came under fire from Cannes chief Thierry Fremaux in an article in Le Monde on May 21 this year. Fremaux said that that kind of alternative cinema doesn’t exist anymore. “All cinema falls under that bracket now,” he said. Is Fremaux angling to expand the official selection and wind down the Quinzaine? Or should Cannes continue to operate with a number of different strong programming visions?

The venerable festival in Edinburgh, which operates less on world premieres, arguably just needs a strong programming team. A move back to August would further energise the event which partly moved to an awkward June date to satisfy some dubious funding criteria from the UK Film Council.

Amid all the politics, press attention and gossip, the importance of these key festivals as an exhibition showcase for diverse and risk-taking films increasingly unlikely to score traditional distribution has never been greater. Which makes their survival in a world of devastating cuts to arts funding even more crucial. The bold choices of these artistic directors cannot be underestimated at a time when studio storytelling has never been so homogenized.


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