Brian Ferguson: Edinburgh Film Festival seeks to consolidate

Award-winning film Uwantme2killhim. Picture: Edinburgh International Film Festival
Award-winning film Uwantme2killhim. Picture: Edinburgh International Film Festival
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Chris Fujiwara and Ken Hay had a contented air about them as they presided over the end-of-term prizegiving at the Filmhouse on Friday.

The two most senior figures at the Edinburgh International Film Festival had good reason for a spring in their step.

Neither were around two years ago when a series of dire post-mortems were being delivered.

But they have had to work to a grim backdrop of the 2011 debacle since they were brought on board just a few months later.

And I don’t think it’s over-egging things to say they might just have exorcised the majority of those “death of the festival” demons.

Hay, chief executive, certainly underlined how things have changed at the opening gala – even though he couldn’t resist a dig at “our friends in the media”, as he recalled how the previous festival had won back much of the lost goodwill from 2011 by simply going back to basics.

So, how does this year’s report card read?

The critics who flocked to the event in impressive numbers this year – as with the Fringe, anyone with a laptop can be one these days – will have their own views.

However the majority of films I’ve seen reviewed appear to have gone down well – with a couple of very notable exceptions – and there has been no escaping the positive buzz about the event on social media, a crucial measurement these days.

Mercifully, all the awards brutally ditched two years ago are back in place, and the festival has shed its bizarre loftiness about red carpets. I suspect the result is more positive media coverage than at any time in the last five years.

There was an air of assurance and confidence, while a show of strength from big-hitters like Robert Carlyle, Kevin McKidd and Brian Cox meant no-one was asking “Where’s Sean?”

Mark Cousins, the former director implicated for much of what went wrong with the 2011 “rethink”, made a triumphant return as a film-maker. Scotland on Sunday’s film critic Siobhan Synnot, whose words cut deeper than most two years ago, was welcomed on to a prize jury.

How times have changed.

If – at the time of writing, final admission figures remain unknown – the festival has not quite attracted the same audience again as it had in 2008 or 2009, then it is definitely back on its feet and possibly punching above its weight for the first time in recent memory. Dare I say it, it might finally have settled into its early slot in the calendar.

But it’s clear from speaking to both Hay and Fujiwara they are far from content with where the festival is now at. It is not the player it once was and substantial funding will be required to improve its standing.

The festival has managed to attract new sponsors, but artistic director Fujiwara’s budget of around £1.6 million is still well short of the £1.9m available to Hannah McGill during her final year in charge in 2010. That should be the bare minimum for 2014.

The Edinburgh International Festival will not thank me for drawing comparisons, but its 2012 budget was more than £10m, around half from the public purse.

If the city and Scottish Government are serious about restoring EIFF’s status within the global industry, they need to think seriously about bridging the gulf in backing for these two events.

The EIF director, Sir Jonathan Mills, turned to megaphone diplomacy not long into his tenure to help make the case for protecting its status. His rabble-rousing tactics worked a treat, particularly in terms of government support.

A decade ago, the then Fringe director Paul Gudgin, scornful of its public funding, was even more blunt: “We need more money or we will go bust.” It very nearly did, but its public funding is now 10 times as much.

I get the sense that the film festival is keen to start turning up the heat.

It need only look at other events for inspiration, rather than feelings of envy.