THE man behind a revamp of the Edinburgh International Film Festival that led to it being branded a “disaster” and a “debacle” has been made a patron of the rescued event.
Mark Cousins, the writer, film-maker and former director of the festival who led last year’s changes, has replaced Sir Sean Connery as a figurehead in what has been called a shock move.
Critics panned the 2011 event and audiences slumped to fewer than 4,000. Ken Hay, the new chief executive, admitted to the audience at the opening night gala of Killer Joe last week that last year had been a “shock to the system”.
Cousins had been in charge of a creative “blueprint” for the 2011 festival that led to the scrapping of red carpets and VIP parties, the shelving of long-running competition prizes, and around half the previous number of film premieres being staged.
A string of guest curators – including Gus Van Sant, Mike Skinner, Isabella Rossellini, Alan Warner and Jim Jarmusch – was lined up but few showed up in the capital.
Although the appointment as patron had not been announced until now, he was given the role in the autumn – months after it was thought that Cousins, appointed alongside long-standing festival patron Tilda Swinton as creative adviser to the festival in October 2010, would be working with director James Mullighan on the event.
However, in April last year it emerged that Cousins and Swinton were no longer involved, sparking widespread confusion about the future direction of the event. Mullighan was axed following the festival, while its chief executive Gavin Miller resigned in the autumn, just before new artistic director Chris Fujiwara was appointed.
Cousins’ appointment as patron – joining Swinton, fellow actor Robert Carlyle and film-maker Seamus McGarvey – has surprised industry watchers because of his close involvement with last year’s festival.
Cousins said yesterday: “It’s my home festival and I was lucky enough to be asked. I see the role as being very much an international advocate for the event.”
However, a spokeswoman for the festival said Cousins had a long-standing relationship with it and had been chosen by the board because of its “position, standing and respect”.
Cousins had a brief spell as director of the film festival in the mid-1990s, before interviewing famous figures such as David Lynch, Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski in the TV series Scene By Scene. He recently won critical acclaim for a 15-hour history of film.
However, film critic Richard Mowe said he was surprised Cousins had replaced Connery after 2011’s “debacle”.
He said: “I have lot of admiration for Mark Cousins but obviously things went very badly wrong last year and although you couldn’t point the finger of blame at one person, some very bad decisions were taken.
“Obviously he is not another big name like Sean Connery, Robert Carlyle or Tilda Swinton, although it is difficult to imagine anyone filling the shoes of Sean.
“However, last year was a debacle and it will take the festival a long time to get over what happened.
“A lot of critics from London and overseas have said to me they will not be coming up this year and I think there will be a lasting legacy.”
Murray Grigor, a former director of the festival and close friend of Connery, said Cousins had to shoulder much of the blame for the festival’s decline, adding that he had been one of the most vocal supporters of moving the event out of its traditional August slot. Grigor, co-author of Connery’s autobiography, added: “The seeds of destruction were sown several years ago when people like Mark Cousins were arguing to move the event to June.
“It was a disaster last year and I don’t think the festival will recover again until it moves back to August. They talked Sean into thinking it was a good idea. I told him I thought it was a mistake.”
Connery has not been at the festival since a special screening of The Man Who Would Be King two years ago to mark his 80th birthday.
He told the audience at the event he would be scaling back his appearances.
Leslie Hills, chair of the festival board, said: “It was never officially announced that Sean wasn’t going to be a patron any more, but it was just assumed because he wasn’t going to be coming regularly.
“He isn’t able to travel to Edinburgh every year, but we still have a very good relationship with him.”
A spokeswoman for the festival added: “Mark was chosen because of his long relationship with the festival but also his position, standing and respect in the film industry.”