Is the dramatically revamped Edinburgh International Film Festival (June 15-26) a possible new model for cash-strapped, calendar-squeezed festivals?

It was always going to be a transitional year for the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), which runs this month June 15-26. This year saw the end of its three-year funding from the UK Film Council (UKFC), the departure of key personnel including managing director Ginnie Atkinson, artistic director Hannah McGill and chairman of the board Iain Smith, and rival event Sheffield Doc/Fest moving to a near-parallel June slot.

But it still came as a surprise to many when, back in December, Gavin Miller — chief executive of EIFF’s parent company Scotland’s Centre For The Moving Image — called for one of the world’s oldest film festivals to “redefine itself for the 21st century”.

Six months later and as it heads into its 65th edition, EIFF appears to have done exactly that. The festival’s new director James Mullighan (appointed originally as ‘producer’), a former journalist and creative director of online network Shooting People, has shaken up EIFF’s offering, abandoning the awards, the red carpet and the traditional closing-night film in favour of quirky outdoor venues, guest curators, live music and an emphasis on documentaries.

But on the eve of this year’s event, many in the UK industry are wondering if such a dramatic reinvention can be pulled off successfully.

“I like to think we have the opportunity to do what all festivals should do and use this as a template for rolling innovation,” says Mullighan, who suggests he has pushed the boundaries as far as possible. “A lot of it is deliberately experimental to really oxygenate the festival. And at the end, I’ll find out whether people think those innovations worked or whether they didn’t.”

‘We have an opportunity to do what all festivals should do and use this as a template for rolling innovation’

James Mullighan, EIFF director

Among the more controversial decisions has been to abandon the festival’s Michael Powell Award for best British film, past recipients of which have included Duncan Jones’ Moon and Shane Meadows’ Somers Town. UK distributors have traditionally used a win or a nomination in their subsequent marketing campaigns. But Mullighan felt the award did not provide the heft of a “proper prize like an Oscar or a Palme d’Or”.

Still, the lack of competition has not stopped UK distributor/producer CinemaNX from choosing the festival for the world premiere of Niall MacCormick’s coming-of-age drama Albatross, starring Julia Ormond, Sebastian Koch and Felicity Jones.

“While we’re disappointed the Michael Powell Award doesn’t exist this year, we still think Edinburgh is a great launchpad with a tradition for breaking cool, independent British movies and we hope we’re going to continue the trend,” says CinemaNX’s Marc Samuelson, who will be bringing several cast members to the festival, albeit not on a red carpet.

“There may not be that particular coloured piece of material but we can still create heat around the premieres, with innovative photo opportunities making the most of Edinburgh as a city,” says Mullighan, who has also cut ties with regular venue Cineworld in favour of Filmhouse, the Cameo cinema, the George Square Theatre and new spaces such as St Andrew Square which will stage open-air screenings.

This year’s line-up is more streamlined than in 2010 — by nearly 50% — with 63 features screening at the festival compared with 106 last year. The festival will open with the UK premiere of Optimum’s Irish comedy thriller The Guard (which world premiered at Sundance) at the city’s Festival Theatre, a venue that will also play host to a special screening of Danfung Dennis’ Sundance documentary jury prize-winner Hell And Back Again, as part of a ‘conflict/reportage’ strand exploring the work of combat journalists (the films will not be divided into sections this year).

One of the most high-profile world premieres is David Hare’s political thriller Page Eight, starring Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz and Michael Gambon, a BBC TV drama that will not be released theatrically in the UK. The festival is continuing with its remit to support new talent, screening two Scottish feature debuts: Carter Ferguson’s Glasgow-set love story Fast Romance and Terry McMahon’s crime thriller Charlie Casanova. Mullighan has opted not to have a closing film. Instead there will be a series of screenings on the last day.

Doc collaboration

A third of the programme is documentaries, the genre with which Mullighan says he feels most comfortable. To avoid any scheduling conflict with Sheffield Doc/Fest, which takes place for the first time in June this year (June 8-12), the two festivals are teaming up to host “joint premieres”, including James Marsh’s Project Nim and Kevin Macdonald’s YouTube documentary Life In A Day.

Edinburgh’s line-up also includes screenings and events conceived by guest curators including Gus Van Sant who has programmed a Derek Jarman retrospective, Hungarian director Bela Tarr who has chosen a selection of Hungarian classics and The Streets’ singer Mike Skinner who will stage a performance event based on his favourite film moments.

One film notable for its absence is Artificial Eye’s well-received Cannes title We Need To Talk About Kevin, directed by Scottish film-maker Lynne Ramsay and starring EIFF patron Tilda Swinton. Swinton, along with producers Mark Cousins and Lynda Myles, is understood to have helped devise the initial blueprint for the new-look EIFF.

But it is not a snub, says Artificial Eye. The decision is down to timing and is too early for the film’s autumn UK release. The distributor is screening another of its films, Tarr’s Berlin title The Turin Horse. Mullighan also confirmed Swinton will not be attending the festival as she is shooting Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom in the US.

However, it is understood EIFF turned down at least one other high- profile world premiere from a UK producer and distributor as its opening film.

‘The whole industry is experimenting and this is a mirror of that’

Hamish Moseley, Momentum Pictures

Indeed, the festival’s low-key approach may have put off some UK distributors, but others see it as an opportunity for their films to shine. David Mackenzie’s Perfect Sense is one of 36 UK premieres at the festival and, with Ewan McGregor confirmed to attend the screening and the festival’s annual ceilidh party being renamed the Perfect Sense party, the film looks set to be one of the festival’s star attractions.

“Edinburgh is treating it as one of its main films, so it’s a great platform to build up as much awareness and get the key Scottish press talking about it,” says Alex Agran, co-owner of the film’s UK distributor Arrow Films.

Momentum Pictures is also launching three films at EIFF — Trollhunter, The Divide and the world premiere of Karl Golden’s comedy Weekender, about the 1990s Ibiza club scene — all of which are due to be released in the UK in the autumn.

“We are more excited by the changes than turned off,” says Momentum’s head of theatrical sales Hamish Moseley. “The whole industry is experimenting and this is a mirror of that. We’ve had a lot of success in Edinburgh in the past going back to Amélie, Control, Let The Right One In, and we have every hope it will work for these three films as well.”

With 40 of the titles screening still without UK distribution, Mullighan hopes there is enough at the festival for buyers, distributors and sales agents from both the UK and internationally to justify a trip to Edinburgh, and he will be encouraging them to do so, albeit on a smaller budget.

“We don’t have a first-class-ticket-from-New-York-sized budget, but we are bringing people over,” he says.

Many UK industry figures will also be in town for the EIFF/Screen International industry conference, titled ‘What is the state of the British film nation?’ with speakers including agent Duncan Heath, distributor Danny Perkins and producers Iain Canning and Stephen Garrett.

By late May, the number of industry delegates to have signed up for the festival was 311 (400 at the same point last year).

When the festival’s UKFC funding came to an end last year, there were calls for EIFF to move back to its August slot alongside the wider Edinburgh Festival including the Fringe and the TV festival (a proviso of the previous funding had been that it took place in June).

“One of the things about having it in June is that all the city’s magnificent venues are empty,” says Mullighan, though he says the decision ultimately lies in the hands of the EIFF executive board. “If an irrefutable case was made to move back to August, then I guess they would.”

So would organisers return to the festival’s old format if this new model doesn’t work? “What we do next year won’t be the same as what we do this year, but it will certainly not involve a reversion to the previous format. That has gone,” says Mullighan.