IT WAS meant to be a bold rethink that would shape the future of one of Scotland’s major cultural events – and it turned into a box office and critical disaster.
Scrapping long-running awards, banning red-carpet premieres and axing VIP parties were all meant to revive the Edinburgh International Film Festival, but only dimmed its star even further.
Now organisers have finally admitted they got it wrong with this year’s event, in which ticket sales slumped, the number of premières were halved and there was widespread criticism of the lack of an artistic director.
The board of the Centre for the Moving Image (CMI), the parent body for the festival, has already said a decision not to replace former artistic director Hannah McGill, who stood down in August 2010, backfired. She has only recently been replaced by a Japan-based American author and critic, Chris Fujiwara.
Diane Henderson, deputy artistic director of the festival, yesterday said that much of the criticism levelled at this year’s event – particularly over the lack of new films, major premières and awards – had been “painful, but true”.
She said the number of premières would be restored to more than 100 next year, compared to just 62 this year, and a string of awards will be part of the programme again.
However, she said, the festival’s funding is still uncertain, as they are not likely to know until January what the budget for the 2012 event will be. Experts believe the EIFF needs a budget of around £2 million to stage an event of the scale of previous years. It is thought just £600,000 was spent on the 2011 festival.
Ms Henderson also defended the decision to keep the festival in its mid-June slot, and said the event would continue to compete for films that had been screened at other events, such as Cannes and Berlin.
Ms Henderson, who has been in her role for the past five years, is one of the few figures to survive at the helm of the event during a turbulent phase in which the festival relocated from August to June, and lost major funding from the UK Film Council, which was disbanded by the government last year.
Last year long-serving managing director Ginnie Atkinson left, as did artistic director Hannah McGill, and a shake-up overseen by Ms Atkinson’s replacement, Gavin Miller, led to a controversial rethink of the event, created by former festival directors Mark Cousins and Lynda Myles, as well as patron Tilda Swinton.
An Australian film producer, James Mullighan, was then brought in to produce the new-look event and unveiled a string of guest curators – most of whom did not turn up.
Speaking at a film industry conference at the Royal Society of Edinburgh yesterday, she said: “Decisions were made last year that were less about the creative side of the festival and more about the management of it. The festival needs an excellent and knowledgable artistic director in place.
“James Mullighan was never hired as Hannah’s replacement. He was appointed to produce a plan that was already in place. There was a wonderful plan, but it wasn’t delivered and the people who drew it up were never going to be there to deliver it.
“Some of the criticism the festival had was very difficult to read, but the fact is we got a lot of things wrong. It was painful to read, but true. We ballsed up bits of it and the press reacted appropriately.
“We actually learned a lot from this year. The distributors want media coverage and they want film journalists to cover the festival. The parties and the networking are very important for bringing people together. You cannot beat face-to-face contact.”
Mr Fujiwara was unveiled in September as the new artistic director, on the same day it emerged Mr Miller had resigned. His appointment has been widely welcomed by the industry, even though he has never attended the festival, or even visited Edinburgh before he landed the job.
Ms Henderson added: “The artistic director is at the heart of what we do, which is about showing the best new films.
“It’s about going to all these events around the world and trying to find exciting new films at the markets and bringing them back to Edinburgh. That’s what the festival has always done and that is what the industry expects us to do.
“We are feeling incredibly positive about next year. Chris doesn’t arrive here until the new year but he is already working on the festival and we’ve already confirmed some films for the programme. He has hit the ground running.”
Ms Henderson said the film festival’s budget is expected to be “roughly the same” as last year, but added that more than 100 premières and possibly two retrospesctives were expected to be in the programme.
However, she said: “One of the issues for the festival is that we won’t know what the funding is until January for an event that is actually hapening in June. The organisations that fund us don’t even know their own funding.
“A lot of really positive things came out of this year and one of those was confirming what we thought about moving to June. The city is bursting at the seams in August. It costs the festival a lot less for things like accommodation and more venues are available.
“Our local audience has increased in June. It also suits the film industry because we are able to show different films from London. Around 85 per cent of the people we asked were in favour of June.”
Ms Atkinson – who announced she was leaving the event in January 2010 after 15 years in the post – yesterday said the appointment of Mr Fujiwara was “great news”, adding that the post was crucial in building public confidence in the event.
She said: “The Edinburgh International Film Festival – like any film festival of note in the world – needs curatorial leadership, and the appointment of Chris Fujiwara as artistic director is an acknowledgement of that fact. He has an excellent reputation and although I am sure he is very tuned in to the ongoing debate about EIFF, he should be left alone to get on with it now.
“The artistic director of a festival is an expert on its art form, a champion of the medium, someone who will choose and shape a programme and stand up and tell us why. Of course there is much more to it, but that is the fundamental factor that builds audience confidence.
“I think the furore about the 2011 Festival has had a good effect in that it has shown how much people care about the EIFF in every way – as an event for audiences, as an essential cog in the film industry machine and as a national asset – and this should bring some sharp focus to the job of fundraising.”