The Karlovy Vary International film festival (June 29-July 7) may be entering its 47th edition, but the platform it offers to debut film-makers and its youthful popularity show it has not lost its edge.

With the festival calendar becoming increasingly crowded, even those who concentrate solely on the big events have difficulty finding room to breathe.

Located in the sedate Czech Republic spa town, the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival - now in its 47th year - is seen by many as a welcome respite from the more hectic schedule that typifies other A-list festivals.

Despite its laid-back atmosphere, Karlovy Vary remains an important event for the industry, especially for those in Central and Eastern Europe. And one of the most recognisable things about the festival is its young and enthusiastic audiences, with queues for films consisting equally of major distributors and university students.

“The festival has an outstanding position among other festivals because of its unaffected atmosphere,” says Krystof Mucha, the event’s executive director. “It is a place where two seemingly distinct worlds meet - film professionals and the lay public - which are connected by a common interest in film.”

Public relations

Unlike Cannes and Venice - where public audiences make up a smaller proportion of screening audiences - Karlovy Vary actively encourages locals and cineastes to experience the 200-plus film programme.

“Our goal is maximum responsiveness to both film professionals and the viewing public, with the goal of making their stay at the festival as comfortable as possible,” adds Mucha. “Thanks to our strong commercial partners, we haven’t had to raise prices for several years. If visitors take advantage of our festival passes, the price is a fifth of the amount of a regular movie screening.”

Last year the festival sold 126,000 tickets. It also attracted more than 800 film buyers, sellers, distributors, film festival programmers, representatives of film institutions and other industry professionals.

‘Our aim is to continue supporting up-and-coming directors and contribute to their artistic development’

Karel Och, Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Under the artistic direction of Karel Och, who took over the role in 2011 after working as a longtime programmer under previous artistic director Eva Zaoralova, the festival increasingly champions new film-makers without losing sight of industry glamour. This year, for example, Helen Mirren will be on hand to collect the award for outstanding artistic contribution to world cinema.

Unsurprisingly, work from Central and Eastern Europe features heavily, especially in the East of the West competition, which has been given a central focus within the festival under Och.

This year’s main Competition will consist of eight world premieres and four international premieres, among them the latest film from The Best Of Youth director Marco Tullio Giordana, Piazza Fontana: The Italian Conspiracy; and To Kill A Beaver from Polish director Jan Jakub Kolski whose previous film Venice made a splash on the festival circuit. One anticipated debut feature is the world premiere of Boy Eating The Bird’s Food by Ektoras Lygizos, an existential drama about three days in the life of a young unemployed man in Athens, Greece.

The East of the West Competition selection will feature Hungary’s Sara Cserhalmi with Dear Betrayed Friends and Slovakia’s Iveta Grofova with Made In Ash.

Czech film-maker Marek Najbrt will be in Karlovy Vary’s main Competition with the premiere of his new feature, Polski Film, a subversive reflection on the boundaries of reality and fiction, while Miroslav Momcilovic’s Death Of A Man In The Balkans [pictured], screening in the Forum of Independents sidebar, explores a new style of cinematographic expression as a webcam captures the commotion that takes place in a flat after the suicide of its owner.

“Every year brings some amazing surprises and unexpected moments, which make us continue loving our jobs,” says Och, who is enthusiastic about the youthful make-up of both the festival’s audience and the film-makers involved.

“Last year, about a third of the programme was first-time films,” he explains. “We had in town many young film-makers who stayed for the entire festival, watched each other’s films, discussed them with our audience, and pitched their projects to film professionals - they have become a part of the festival in a way.

“Our aim is to continue supporting up-and-coming directors, to contribute to their artistic development and to follow their careers.”

UK film-maker Jes Benstock, whose feature documentary debut The British Guide To Showing Off screened in the Documentary Films In Competition section last year, believes Karlovy Vary was crucial in helping his film receive greater recognition.

“It was an amazing festival to premiere in as it has a strong international media and film festival presence in particular,” he says. “There was a good press office that responded well to requests and led us to be reviewed and interviewed by TV, radio and press ranging from German Arts Radio to Brazil HBO. We were invited to several other festivals - mostly European - and were adopted by a festival circuit regular who loved the film and connected us to several festivals and press reviews.”

For Aleksandra Biernacka, the head of festivals at Polish broadcaster and sales company TVP, the festival has proved a key event for launching its work into the international market.

“We have had some significant successes thanks to Karlovy Vary,” she says. “The Big Animal by Jerzy Stuhr - after being awarded the KV Special Jury Prize in 2000 - travelled to over 80 countries and scored a theatrical distribution deal in the US; Hi, Tereska by Robert Glinski (2001) was sold to over 60 territories after the enormous success in KV; and just recently, Declaration Of Immortality by Marcin Koszalka (2010) - awarded the best short documentary prize last year - has been shown at more than 60 film events around the world and got almost 30 international prizes.”

The key for many is the festival’s ability to seem low key while still making a noise throughout the film industry. “Karlovy Vary is a human-size festival,” says French producer Guillaume De Seille, who has attended Karlovy Vary with films such as 2009’s Crab Trap.

Meanwhile, though Karlovy Vary does not have a market, it offers plenty of networking opportunities, with its fair share of swanky parties often held at the ornate Grandhotel Pupp or informal coffees at the Thermal Hotel.

“The festival is the networking place,” says Andrea Szczukova, who heads the Karlovy Vary industry office. “You really have time to meet and talk. The festival wants to be a platform where you meet and make acquaintances, which is often impossible at festivals like Cannes and Berlin.”

The industry looks East

Karlovy Vary will introduce up to 20 works in progress (in post-production or pre-release) from Central and Eastern Europe to international sales agents, distributors and festivals while Docu Talents from the East will present new documentaries from the region.

Aleksandra Biernacka, from public broadcaster TVP in Poland, is enthusiastic about the Works in Progress initiative: “The panel has been fruitful for us on many different occasions with, for example, All That I Love by Jacek Borcuch being selected for the Sundance Dramatic Competition in 2009 and Marek Lechki’s Erratum (2010) shown at Pusan and numerous other festivals worldwide. And To Kill A Beaver by Jan Jakub Kolski is to have its world premiere in this year’s international competition.”

Karlovy Vary, in association with the Czech Film Centre and Slovak Film Institute, will present its first co-production workshop, Pitch & Feedback. It will present Czech and Slovak film projects in development with potential for international co-productions, which will receive feedback from experts in the international film industry.

For the first time, Central and Eastern European film centres will have the opportunity to showcase their work at stands in the Film Industry Office.