Brian Ferguson: Capital’s film festival faces growing contest

Kelly MacDonald starred in 'Decoy Bride' which was shown at GFF. Picture: Contributed
Kelly MacDonald starred in 'Decoy Bride' which was shown at GFF. Picture: Contributed
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IT WAS an odd moment, in the middle of a briefing about this year’s Glasgow Film Festival, to confess I’d yet to attend a single event.

This slightly embarrassing oversight will, barring a disaster, be rectified in the next week, in what will be the event’s ninth year.

I’ve always rather lazily blamed Celtic Connections before now, the late nights and excesses of those long weekends in January and early February.

As with what has long been Glasgow’s biggest music festival, there were a few eyebrows raised at the arrival of a new film festival in Glasgow when it was launched.

It already felt as if Edinburgh and London’s film festivals were battling for new films and high-profile guests. Surely a new festival in Glasgow would struggle to make an impact, particularly in the murky depths of winter?

If anyone had suggested at that point – and I don’t think anyone did – that Glasgow’s event would be considered a serious rival to Edinburgh’s film festival within a decade, they would probably have been laughed at.

Some may suggest the GFF should be judged purely on its own merits, yet it is hard to avoid comparing it to EIFF.

Well, not only did the Glasgow Film Festival attract almost as many attendees in 2012 as EIFF did a few months earlier, but it is now perceived by many to be the better-organised, programmed, promoted and audience-friendly than its longer-running, more prestigious and better-funded big sister at the other end of the M8.

If you have been a Scottish film-maker trying to get exposure in the last couple of years, Glasgow seems to have been a far better bet to launch your film. Look at the last few EIFF programmes and compare them to Glasgow’s.

The latter has been indisputably more “Scottish”, and unashamed about it too, even if this has meant giving top billing to films which have not exactly set the box office on fire.

A look at the reviews for three of last year’s big GFF films – Decoy Bride, Ecstasy and Electric Man – is pretty eye-watering.

As I pondered my absence from the GFF thus far, my mind drifted back almost a couple of my decades to the first EIFF events I went to.

It was a time when the festival’s organisers made a conscious decision to not only broaden the appeal of the event, taking premieres out of their traditional venues, for example, but also pulling out all the stops to attract major names to the city. In those days, now viewed as some kind of “golden era” for the event, it was my highlight of the summer festivals in Edinburgh.

For some reason, it felt like the easiest event of the many held in Edinburgh in August to dip into and get tickets for, even those red-carpet premieres that were ridiculously binned a couple of years ago.

The EIFF’s problems have been complex and many-layered in recent years. A shrinking funding pot, the departure of key figures from the staff, and an eerily similar managerial shake-up to the one that derailed Creative Scotland so spectacularly in 2012 combined to leave the event at the mercy of the critics.

As one of those who was persuaded at the time of the merits of moving the EIFF to June five years ago, with the benefit of hindsight, it appears to have been done without the necessary resources being in place to make a real impact in an increasingly cluttered calendar.

Where previously it was a lynchpin of the Edinburgh Festival, it has lacked the same allure in June and its shortcomings have felt almost exposed in its early-summer slot.

The growth of the GFF and its umpteen offshoots into a month-long cinematic extravaganza has merely highlighted EIFF’s failure to adapt and evolve to the changing landscape.

For me, the jury is still out on the new EIFF artistic director, Chris Fujiwara, who has now had more than a full year at the helm, after restoring a fair degree of confidence in the event in 2012 after he had just a few months to put a programme together.

Like the crisis that engulfed the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2008, and the one Creative Scotland is tentatively emerging from, perhaps the EIFF’s implosion will be seen as a wake-up call for the event and the city. But it won’t be until the end of this year’s EIFF that any proper conclusions can be drawn.