As the 65th edition of the EIFF closes with bad buzz, the UK film industry calls for a strong artistic director and a move back to August.

The 65th edition of the EIFF ended on Sunday amidst negative press and industry complaints over the festival’s lack of stars, empty seats, administrative and PR blunders and a failure to attract high profile titles such as Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin (despite it starring EIFF patron Tilda Swinton) with one industry insider calling the event “flat and fragmented” and another “a catastrophe.”

On the other hand several distributors and producers who attended the festival have pointed to “packed out screenings” and an “obvious appetite for change” with one industry insider who did not wish to be named adding that “people forget that the festival did need an overhaul.”

Either way, the festival is yet to release details of tickets sales or delegate numbers for the 2011 edition, or comment on future editions.

The only official word from the festival has been a statement made by EIFF chair Leslie Hills who confirmed that “in July, as planned, we will begin the recruitment process for 2012,” with the current festival director James Mullighan telling Screen that “the board thinks the best thing to do is to appoint what they call an artistic director,” a post he says he intends to apply for when it is advertised.

Meanwhile Gavin Miller, who runs the festival’s parent company the Centre for the Moving Image, declined to speak to Screen at this stage, saying only that “we will release [figures] but we have to follow due process and protocol with key funders”. Chair Leslie Hills is currently on annual leave.

The lack of comment from EIFF organisers will do little to quash speculation and rumours about the future of festival, which has been the subject of intense speculation since the recruitment process began last year to find a replacement for artistic director Hannah McGill.

After failing to find an appropriate candidate in the initial round of applications, the former creative director of indie filmmakers network Shooting People James Mullighan was brought on board as the festival’s producer (his title later changed to director) with a remit to implement a blueprint set out by Lynda Myles, Mark Cousins and Tilda Swinton which promised radical changes to the festival, most of which, say sources close to the festival, were never put into practice.

But it was the festival’s lack of communication throughout the process which really led industry insiders to assume that there were problems behind the scenes, whilst others felt that the hiring of a local Edinburgh PR firm (which isn’t known for its film work) sent out the wrong message to the wider film community.

“By the time I had my feet under the desk we were already an odd thing to comprehend,” says Mullighan, who admits that one of the biggest problems was lack of time (he had only six months to put the festival together).

“Still, other than having a longer run at it, I wouldn’t have done anything differently,” says Mullighan, who remains unapologetic about the programme, highlights of which included John Michael McDonagh’s Irish comedy The Guard (which proved a popular choice for opening night) and David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense, which was attended by its star Ewan McGregor.

McGregor, however, was one of the few A-Listers to attend the festival, a problem that Mullighan puts down to the festival’s considerably reduced budget. “It costs money to bring stars to Edinburgh, and we had a much smaller budget. We did the best with what we had.” The festival had vowed this year to abandon the red carpet anyway.

Some industry figures believe that Mullighan has been turned into a scapegoat for the wider problems with the management of the festival. “They should take collective responsibility for it and move forward. One of the biggest problems has been the lack of defence, because it has actively fuelled the negativity” said a UK producer who wished to remain anonymous.

In fact, beneath the blanket of negative press, Screen has talked to a number of distributors and producers who screened films at the festival and who had positive experiences. 

Momentum Pictures’ publicity manager Mark Jones reported that “the audiences were as passionate and supportive as ever,” at screenings of Weekender, Troll Hunter and The Divide, all of which, says Jones, were sold out, whilst CinemaNX producer Marc Samuelson reported a “packed screening” for Albatross and Piers Tempest said his film The Caller played to “full houses,” although he did add that “it was a real shame that there was no awards component and they were clearly operating on a shoestring.” [The festival killed off the Michael Powell Award competition and also didn’t have an audience award.]

Andy Whittaker of UK distributor Dogwoof, which screened documentary Bobby Fischer Against The World at EIFF, reported that the overall experience was “better than expected, although it wasn’t necessarily clear what the festival’s identity was.”

Many in the industry agree that the only way the EIFF will be able to reclaim that identity is with the appointment of an experienced and high profile artistic director, who will be able to generate goodwill from the industry and rebuild the festival’s reputation, something that will be crucial in attracting sponsors and financial support going forward.

“The festival needs a visionary artistic director who knows the international scene and the festival landscape, as well as having back up from a board and staff who share that vision,” says former EIFF artistic director Lynda Myles.

Senior production and development executive at the BFI and former artistic director of the EIFF, Lizzie Francke, agrees that the key is leadership and a strong vision. “Edinburgh has always been associated with passionate cinephilia and I’m looking forward to seeing the festival rediscover its vision with a strong artistic director.”

Meanwhile others feel EIFF has suffered as a result of its move from August (when it ran alongside the busy festival season including the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe) to June in 2008 as part of a three-year funding deal with the UKFC, with overriding support from the industry for a move back to August to benefit from the buzz created by the wider festival.

“[In June] it’s too close to Cannes, but too far away from Venice and Toronto to benefit from finding those films that will go on to bigger international exposure,” says Bankside’s Stephen Kelliher who was in Edinburgh for a screening of The Caller, and who draws on his past personal experience of bringing the world premiere of Chopper to Edinburgh in August 2000 when he was with Beyond Films. “[Chopper] went on to be a big success in Toronto and Edinburgh was credited as discovering it. That’s where the festival’s strength lies.”

 “The biggest thing they need to fix is the date. It should be back in its original slot and make the most of Edinburgh rather than trying to create its own stage,” adds Whittaker.

One thing that is clear is the strength of feeling which exists towards the world’s longest-running film festival. Now it’s up to the organisers to capitalise on that.

Disclosure: Screen International partnered with EIFF 2011 for an industry conference.