When Rutger Wolfson was named director of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) in autumn 2007, his appointment was on an interim basis. His contract was for only one edition and many expected him to return to his job as director of De Vleeshal, a Dutch centre for contemporary art, after the 2008 edition.
But Wolfson decided to stay. And having been given a four-year contract as general director, he has overseen a radical overhaul of the festival. The 38th edition (January 21-February 1) sees several significant changes, as well as some cosmetic ones, including a redesign of the festival's Tiger logo.
Wolfson has decided to streamline the rich but sometimes unwieldy Rotterdam programme. Iffr now has three main sections: Bright Future (which includes the Tiger award competition and aims to provide a platform for 'idiosyncratic and adventurous new work'), Spectrum (for the work of more experienced film-makers) and Signals (for themed work including retrospectives and exhibitions).
'I wanted to formulate what artistically are the most important things about this festival and I wanted the new programme structure to reflect that in a very transparent way,' Wolfson explains.
All three sections can contain shorts, live performances and art installations as well as features. 'We don't have any fringe programming any more,' the director says, describing the strategy of combining different kinds of film-making in the same sections.
Rotterdam is, famously, an auteur-driven event. The local press sometimes grumbles about the lack of stars. Without making any concessions to red-carpet frivolity, this year's festival is bound to pique curiosity with its choice of opening film.
The Hungry Ghosts is the debut feature of actor-turned-director Michael Imperioli (best known for his role in The Sopranos). Set in New York, this is an ensemble piece about - as Wolfson puts it - 'roaming souls looking for themselves and looking for liberation'.
Buyers, meanwhile, will be curious about another world premiere in the Tiger competition, UK director Simon Ellis' debut feature Dogging: A Love Story, which one festival programmer has described as 'a portrait of sex-obsessed Britain'.
IFFRwill also be offering old-fashioned spectacle through its Size Matters sidebar for which various film-makers, among them Canadian maverick Guy Maddin, have been commissioned to make films for huge outdoor screens.
Outside the competition, there are also titles likely to intrigue buyers and critics. For example, the festival has the international premiere of Morfia by Alexei Balabanov (Cargo 200, Of Freaks And Men), which is based on the short stories of Mikhail Bulgakov as adapted by the late Sergei Bodrov Jr, and the world premiere of Room And A Half by Andrey Khrzhanovsky, about the Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky.
A balancing act
Rotterdam is sandwiched between Sundance and Berlin in the festival calendar. Its challenge is to differentiate itself from these events while continuing to attract film-makers and industry visitors.
On the one hand, Iffr is unashamedly adventurous in its programming and will showcase movies or events which other festivals would consider too esoteric.
On the other hand, it remains keen to court industry visitors - sales agents, distributors and broadcasters whose interest in avant-garde work is, at best, marginal. For this reason, many have welcomed Wolfson's changes. At a time when the worldwide market for arthouse movies appears to have reached saturation point, they appreciate the new-found clarity of the programme.
'Rotterdam has been living in a rather Utopian bubble for a few years,' says UK producer Keith Griffiths, who has produced the Carlos Reygadas, Guy Maddin and Nanouk Leopold films, which are showing at the festival as outdoor screenings, and who sits on the CineMart advisory board. 'Any streamlining now makes it more focused and this is what was needed.'
'There are many, many seasoned professionals in the industry who know exactly what Rotterdam can offer them,' Wolfson insists. 'We can make films much more visible than they can ever be in Berlin.'
What Rotterdam offers above all, Wolfson argues, is access to new talent. 'It's unlike other festivals where there is so much going on and bigger names in the industry.
The climate (for new talent) is very positive and people know that,' he says, citing both the Tiger competition (for first and second features) and the co-production market, CineMart, as events that unearth consistently the best young film-makers.
The festival also looks to develop features by film-makers from developing countries through its Hubert Bals Fund (HBF). Over the last two years, there has been uncertainty over whether the Dutch government will continue to support the fund.
HBF receives backing through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but there have been murmurings from right-wing parties in the Netherlands about the amount of money committed to foreign aid. Some have questioned whether the ministry should be investing in film-making.
'It has not been resolved yet,' says Wolfson. He is hoping the minister for development co-operation, Bert Koenders, will attend the festival and meet film-makers whose work has been supported by the HBF. A recent government report on the fund was 'very positive' and Wolfson is optimistic the HBF's financing will remain secure. In the meantime, the festival is looking for ways to boost distribution of fund-backed films in the countries where they are made.
Wolfson believes the HBF helps give the festival an international identity and to show to audiences and film-makers that 'the world is bigger than Europe'.
Supporting the Tigers
Like other festivals, Iffr is feeling the financial squeeze. Although the festival, running on a budget of around $9.9m (EUR7.2m), has secured extra public funding for 2009-12, Wolfson points out that 'prices are going up'. Hotels, travel and location rental are more expensive than last year. But despite the squeeze, the festival is hatching plans to provide extra support for Tiger competition winners to ensure they are seen in cinemas internationally. New programmer Chinlin Hsieh is consulting with industry insiders about how this might be achieved.
'We've got to take notice of the difficulties the films and film-makers we love are having in the marketplace,' says Hsieh, an industry veteran who has worked on project development, acquisition and sales with Arena Films, The Co-production Office and Celluloid Dreams. 'How are we going to help the films that we love to perform''
'We want to make sure Tiger films can find an audience. We really believe in these films,' Wolfson agrees.
But it is unclear what form this new support will take - whether, for example, it will be in the form of subsidies for distributors and sales agents handling Tiger competition winners. However, Hsieh acknowledges the strategy is distribution-driven.
'The whole marketplace is rigid at the moment. People are very, very afraid of buying films,' she says. 'We want to make something happen but we need to talk to the real players in the marketplace and ask if (the festival's plans) are sustainable.'
The aim is to have the new support scheme in place for the 2010 edition.