Centre for the Moving Image CEO Gavin Miller said the festival has to redefine itself for the 21st century; some industry watchers bemoan loss of competition section.

Industry reaction to the overhaul at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which includes the news that the festival’s competition section is definitely to be scrapped this year, has been mixed, with some fearing that the changes could strike a blow to independent film-makers looking for a UK festival to showcase their films.

The announcement of the EIFF’s overhaul comes after a period of speculation regarding the future of the festival after Hannah McGill left her post as artistic director in August and the UKFC’s funding came to an end last year.

Gavin Miller, CEO of the festival’s new parent company the Centre for the Moving Image, announced in December that the 65th edition of the festival would be revamped with Shooting People creative director James Mullighan taking on the role of festival “director” working alongside Mark Cousins, Tilda Swinton and Lynda Myles who plan to transform the festival with programmes put together by guest curators and themed events, leaving behind the festival’s traditional format which included the Michael Powell competition for best new British feature.

Miller told Screen that the changes are as a result of “finding the optimum way to revitalise the film festival, without losing its heritage.”

“In our 21st-century space, it’s a good opportunity to redefine. Not lose what’s important in terms of heritage, but redefine it and refresh. For me it is a positive and in part radical way of setting out a new creative ambition. Spending time with James and seeing him and Mark working together on the ideas that they’ve got, I think it will surprise and delight people,” he continued.

Mullighan, who confirmed that the competition would be abolished for “this year at least,” added that the changes were part of a “big bold experiment. Nothing is off the table going forward. We are going to throw everything up in the air and see what lands.”

“We will attempt to attract the best of the new work and we will programme it well and exhibit it well,” said Mullighan, who added that he expected the blueprint to be announced within the month.

“All that is missing is the chance for the Michael Powell Award, pretty much every other reason to have your film in the festival remains. There will be buyers there, there will be other festival programmers, there will be industry delegates. My plan is to stay in Edinburgh for three to five years, building the festival up to being an internationally renowned top tier festival again.”

Mullighan told Screen that he plans to expand the short film programme and to put on screenings in unusual venues across the city. “I really want to futurise this festival,” he added.

Answering concerns that the festival would lose its importance in the eyes of the industry, Miller said that the responses he had received since the announcement in December had been positive. “The number of industry people who came back to say they are excited by it, they can’t wait to see what it’s going to deliver, has been great. People have been ringing me up and asking how they can help.”

But some film-makers are not convinced.“I think it will be a huge loss if they don’t have the British competition. It’s the only festival in the UK that is like Sundance, because it is still open to catching a little gem and it has a feel of independent cinema about it,” said UK director Jan Dunn, whose 2005 feature debut Gypo and 2009 film The Calling screened in competition at the EIFF.

“London is so commercial; I would never submit my films there. But with Edinburgh, there was always a chance,” added Dunn, who picked up her US agent at the festival in 2005.

Rupert Preston of Vertigo Distribution, whose low budget critical hit Monsters screened in the festival last year, said that he viewed Edinburgh as “good for launching our “smaller” quality movies like London to Brighton and Monsters where we could combine gaining (hopefully) positive press reactions with the possibility of winning a prize.”

“If there are no competitions they do need to make sure there’s lots of press people there,” he added.

One industry source said it could be good news for the Glasgow Film Festival and the London Film Festival, as the overhaul, together with the fact that the UKFC’s financial support for the festival ended in 2010, is likely to signal the end of big premieres and funky parties. Miller also told Screen that as a result of the budget cuts and restructure, he had made around five redundancies.

“We don’t have the size of the budget we had last year, but at the same time, with the focus on a new artistic and creative vision, what that brings with it is new and innovative thoughts and ideas where you don’t have to spend significant amounts of money,” said Miller.

“Gavin and I are working closely to come up with creative partnerships. We have a good enough budget that this festival won’t feel like an apology. I will spend the money better and more noisily than ever before,” added Mullighan.

Some industry insiders have also voiced concerns that the festival may have left it too late to implement such major changes, although again Miller said that there is no cause for worry. “It’s all going to plan, we’ve got a really committed team and people here are really excited. My view is turn up to the festival in June and come and have a look, and before that, if you’ve got any questions, ring me up!” 

Mullighan confirmed that he would be attending Berlin and SXSW, whilst festival producer Diane Henderson would attend Rotterdam and Edinburgh Filmhouse representatives will be at Sundance.

There have been some positive responses from the industry, with Nigel Thomas of Matador Pictures, who executive produced Ben Miller’s Huge which screened in Edinburgh last year, suggesting that the revamp, which looks set to involve a series of curated themed events, was “great for film buffs and I’m sure it will be a credible event for cineastes.”

“There were glimmers of them wanting to go the competition/market route, which the UK needs in my view, but Edinburgh is probably the wrong location and they wisely seem to have given up on that,” added Thomas.

Mark Herbert of Warp Films, who was at the festival in 2009 to screen Shane Meadow’s Le Donk & Scor-zay-zee, said he would “still support Edinburgh with or without competition - it’s a great festival and great city,” although he did add a plea for the EIFF to return to its August slot [the festival moved to June in 2008], saying that he “wished it was back to same time as fringe and TV festival as it has more energy then.”

Miller admitted that the festival’s date was not set in stone, especially given the CMI’s plans to focus on “creating a year-round film, moving image entity.”

“This year we are focused on June 2011, in terms of going forward, I’ll be looking at the business model. We’ve also got the Filmhouse as part of the CMI, and we are looking at how we can build a year round business rather than two separately ran business as they were before.”

“It could be that we have something in June and then something wholly different in August to run alongside the other festival,” he revealed.

Justin Marciano of UK distributor- Revolver Entertainment said he was “keen to see what changes are going to be made and how the festival will look to retain its attraction as a key international festival date for the industry. Until that’s decided, it’s difficult to comment on its continuing importance.”

Meanwhile Dan Simmons of UK training body Skillset, which has worked with the EIFF on training initiatives including screenwriting programme The Story Works which ran for the first time in 2010, said the body was due to talk to Mullighan next week regarding plans for this year. He confirmed that there is at least one new initiative, an online mentoring scheme set to be launched at the festival, to be spearheaded by Kate Leys from the EIFF.

“We are committed to various programmes and we will keep seeing them as an important strategic partner, said Simmons, who added that the overhaul could be a positive development in terms of nurturing new talent.

 “It may be an opportunity to cast the net more broadly, as it is not just about rigid structures, it’s potentially a chance to involve people from different backgrounds and it gives them the flexibility to look at different ways of promoting new talent.”