After a 2011 edition plagued with problems, the Edinburgh International Film Festival is back this year with an eclectic line-up and a renewed focus on British and upcoming talent. Screen talks to the festival’s new artistic director Chris Fujiwara - and the industry - about how the 66th edition (June 20-July 1) is shaping up.
After last year’s widely criticised edition of the EIFF, there were fears that the world’s longest-running film festival faced a bleak future.
The 2011 edition was dogged by a series of internal problems from the outset - its three year funding from the UKFC dried up, managing director Ginnie Atkinson stepped down in January 2011, artistic director Hannah McGill left her post in the August and producer Iain Smith stepped down as chair of the festival’s board in October as the festival came under the control of the Centre for the Moving Image. The CMI’s CEO Gavin Miller decided to “redefine the festival” bringing in guest curators and appointing former journalist and Shooting People head James Mullighan as festival “producer” (his role later changed to “artistic director”).
The festival went ahead, but suffered as a result of a series of PR blunders, a less than impressive line-up, the decision to scrap the Michael Powell Award and the festival’s red carpet events, not to mention a general lack of cohesion, which led to many in the industry calling for a complete overhaul for 2012.
A year on and the festival is back with a new management team - Chris Fujiwara replaced James Mullighan as artistic director in September, whilst Ken Hay stepped in to the role of CEO of the Centre for the Moving Image after Gavin Miller stepped down.
And the result? An eclectic line up, the Michael Powell Award reinstated, red carpets back on the agenda, the delegate centre back at the heart of the festival’s activity (as opposed to in the student union building) and the festival’s regular PR team back onboard (last year it was a local Edinburgh based firm who had no experience of working on film festivals), now working through Organic.
The changes have brought a definite sense of renewed enthusiasm for the festival, both amongst the organisers, the industry and the press. Even the Scottish press, which were particularly vitriolic in their criticism of last year’s edition, seem to be onboard.
But is the new artistic director Chris Fujiwara, who relocated from Tokyo to take on the role, feeling the pressure?
“There is always a lot of talk about last year. It doesn’t bother me…I wasn’t here last year and it’s not about me, and I think everybody understands that, which I’m really grateful for,” says writer/critic Fujiwara.
When it came to selecting this year’s programme – highlights of which features 19 world premieres and international premieres including 7 Days In Havana and California Solo and James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer - Fujiwara says that his “main desire was to find the best and most interesting films that I could. Films that made me excited and that I could excite the audience with. It is a very international and diverse programme.” He has chosen to bookend the festival with William Freidkin’s Venice 2011 selection Killer Joe and Disney Pixar’s Brave.
While the line-up may be international, there is also a stronger than usual selection of British films on offer, especially those competing for the reinstated Michael Powell Award. Films include Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, Luis Prieto’s Pusher and Bart Layton’s Sundance favourite The Imposter.
“It’s actually stronger than I expected it to be when I started to put the programme together. I wasn’t expecting to see so many strong British films,” admits Fujiwara, who has also put together a line-up of industry events, including a series of panels aimed at up and coming film-makers and new talent.
One of the biggest problems last year was a breakdown of communication with UK distributors, with rumours of fallings out leading to a lack of high profile films in the programme.
“We were certainly aware that the 2011 festival had disappointed a lot of distributors. So part of our effort this year has been repairing the good relationships that the festival had with UK distributors. From my point of view as the new artistic director, I could come in a meet them and start afresh,” says Fujiwara.
And it seems that the blunders of last year have not put off producers and distributors.
Vertigo will be screening the world premiere of Pusher, Luis Prieto’s English-language remake of Nicolas Winding Refn’s cult 1996 classic, which also will compete for the Michael Powell Award. “It is a great fit, the film is very independent and quite edgy but hopefully should cross over and be quite mainstream, which is what Edinburgh is all about. Plus there is a symmetry with the film, because we premiered the original at the festival many years ago,” says Rupert Preston of Vertigo, which will launch the new film theatrically in the UK in October.
“Traditionally we have always supported the festival, a lot of our films – like Monsters, London to Brighton, have shown there. There is a new team and you’ve got to give them a chance. The proof will be during the festival itself but so far it has all been fine,” says Preston, who will also be supporting Vertigo-backed Olympic short What If?, directed by StreetDance directors Max Giwa und Dania Pasquini, which screens in its own special Olympic strand, and the world premiere of Ian Clark’s Guinea Pigs, which Vertigo is releasing.
Two Film4-backed projects will be competing for the Michael Powell Award –Bart Leyton’s The Imposter which had its world premiere at Sundance and Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio, which is being released by Artificial Eye in the UK.
Artificial Eye chose not to screen We Need To Talk About Kevin at the EIFF last year, which according to the company was down to the film’s release date. “We consider our relationship with the EIFF to be very good,” said a spokesperson.
“There is a really strong focus on new British talent again and we really wanted to support that. We felt the strongest way of doing that was by taking our films there,” says Film4’s senior commissioning executive Katherine Butler.
“For us Edinburgh has always been incredibly important. London has red carpet and the very big titles. But we also need a home for the smaller discovery films. We’ve wanted EIFF to be a great home for those films for a long time. We had a great conversation with Chris and Ken and they laid out everything they wanted to do. We felt really confident in everything that they talked about,” adds Butler.
Alison Sterling, producer of Flying Blind, a low budget Bristol-set feature which is also competing for the Michael Powell Award, wasn’t put off by last year’s bad press. “I heard that they were going to do something interesting this year, and I actually thought I’d like to be part of that rejuvenation,” says Sterling who says the festival is a good fit for the film, which will go on to screen for buyers at the London UK Film Focus, “because it’s British but it’s also international. A British story but French Algerian cast, Polish director. And Edinburgh has an international feel.”
This year’s edition has benefitted from a fresh injection of funding from the BFI and a number of new sponsors which means a budget of £1.5m as opposed to £1m in 2011.
But, says Fujiwara, there is still a long way to go. “We absolutely need more sponsorship. Getting sponsorship has been a very challenging task this year, partly just because of the economic climate, so we are delighted that we have so many sponsors and are hoping to build on that for the future.”
After last year’s festival, one of the biggest cries from the industry was that it should move from its June slot back to its old August position.
“For this year, we did a consultation that happened right after my appointment. I’m satisfied at the result of that consultation which was to stay in June,” says Fujiwara who is not ruling out a move to August, but says that it would depend on the festival having an increased budget.
“The problem with August for us is an economic one. It’s vastly more expensive to do the festival in August. So with the budget we have now, June is the best month. With a much increased budget, we could start to look at other dates, including August.”
Meanwhile, there will be an increased spotlight on attracting talent and red carpet events again this year. “It is a big deal because it sets up the atmosphere of the festival in a way which is very important,” says Fujiwara, who will be bringing William Friedkin, the director of Killer Joe for opening night, along with some cast members, still to be confirmed. Other talent confirmed at the fesitval includes James Marsh, Robert Carlyle, Chris Menges and Peter Strickland.
The success of the 66th edition is yet to be seen, but as Butler puts it, there seems to be a “real desire for it to work”.
“I’ve had the chance to make a new festival. What makes that even better is that it’s not a new festival, it’s a festival which has a very long and very distinguished reputation,” says Fujiwara.