Edinburgh Film Festival needs alchemist and illusionist

In its current search for a new director the Edinburgh International Film Festival, like all festivals, once again needs to find someone who possesses the illusionist’s knack of conjuring up, from modest ingredients, the magic moments that keep it in the public, professional and indeed political eye.  However EIFF is in that most difficult of middle grounds, being neither part of the comfortably off global A list nor able to survive on the modest pickings open to a niche national/specialist festival.  Somehow it has to maintain its position on the international stage with, like the Talented Mr Ripley, less in the wallet than its demeanour suggests.

Film Festivals are both an end in themselves and a means to an end.  For audiences they provide access to the untried, the niche, the obscure, the forgotten as well as the canonical.  For filmmakers, sales agents, distributors, other film festival programmers, critics, scholars and aspiring talent they provide a means to showcase their work, spot product to sell or programme, grab face-time with industry powerbrokers or build networks with people on the rise.  Temporary cathedrals to celluloid and encrypted digital cinema hard-drives, festivals are quintessentially human affairs where proximity in space and time can trigger that precious and virtually impossible to fake information cascade that called buzz.  Academics call it ‘increasing returns to information’ but all that really means is that the more people talk about something…the more people talk about it.  The cyber equivalent is a trending topic on twitter. Indeed the movie business has been quick to spot the value of twitter in tracking what’s hot and what’s not at the box office or, more importantly, what will be hot at the box office, if only a few days ahead of its release.

In the traditionally hierarchical world of festivals there are three ‘official’ classes designated by FIAPF, the cinematic equivalent of football’s FIFA. The twelve ‘A list’ competitive international festivals around which industry, critics and audiences cluster because they are seen by industry, critics and audiences as key markers of a film’s quality and potential business.  The circular nature of that last sentence is deliberate – Venice, Cannes, Toronto, Berlin etc. have earned their A-list status over the years through a virtuous circle in which astute programming of subsequently widely applauded movies generates a ‘quality’ ranking which in turn attracts major studios and neophyte auteurs alike to pursue a coveted gala opening, directors fortnight slot or similar.  The more a festival is associated with successful films and filmmakers, the more competition to get into it there is and the more likely it is to maintain its position as an A list festival.   In a parallel motion national Governments are more easily persuaded to support their key festivals financially the more media and industry plaudits they earn.  Bigger budgets mean, in turn, that the festival can spend more on flying in industry and press and mounting more elaborate marketing and PR which increases their chances of attracting the big films, the big talent and, therefore, the key industry press and personnel.  Any particular A-list festival’s position in the premier league – its perceived success at discovering new talent and/or generating the maximum buzz for studio star vehicles – is a continuing topic for industry and press gossip but membership of the premiere league itself remains pretty constant.  From time to time there are upstarts and upsets and there are longer term structural changes as new continents and countries vie for promotion.

Outside the A-List are the so called ‘specialist competitive’ festivals like Pusan in South Korea, AFI Los Angeles or the Tallinn Black Nights Festival in Estonia and beyond these are the non-competitive (e.g. Toronto and the BFI London Film Festival), documentary and short film festivals such as Tampere.

Reality strains at the official hierarchy however as, for example, most  (western) industry figures consider Toronto to be more important than Tokyo or Shanghai and the influential Sundance festival, for instance, doesn’t feature in FIAPF.  It may be global but the movie business still has hemispheric cultural concentrations and differences.

But the 51 or so FIAPF recognised festivals are just the tip of an ever- growing iceberg of festivals of every possible hue.  Some estimates put the total number at over 3,000 but the truth is that no-one really knows.  New festivals appear seemingly every week.  Here in Edinburgh, home to the world’s oldest continuously running festival, a newcomer, Edindocs, popped up only last month to celebrate the art of the documentary while next month Bristol plays host to newcomer Unchosen, set up to raise awareness of human trafficking.

Festivals like these fulfil a different if no less important function to the industry opinion-forming A and B list festivals.  The latter have to address a complex of interests in which their strategic positioning in the festivals marketplace plays an ever-more influential part.  In contrast micro-festivals concentrate on offering niche audiences films they would otherwise have little chance of seeing on a big screen and which will probably garner most if not all of their big screen exposure on the specialised festival circuit, be that for shorts, documentaries, science fiction or animation.  Red carpets, glamorous parties and phalanxes of acquisitions executives are less important here than building audience loyalty, though the ability to attract bigger films and names is a need shared by all sizes and scale of festival.

Occupying the middle ground between the high-stakes, Government-backed A-list festivals and these localised, specialised and often entirely volunteer-run labours of love are festivals such as our dearly beloved EIFF.  Truly punching above its weight on a (now significantly reduced) budget that would make an A-list festival director weep, it nonetheless has to find a way to maintain an international profile in an increasingly crowded festival marketplace where marketing and PR budgets for middle market films (studio specialised divisions, European movies and so on) are under severe pressure and festival directors have to work harder (and more expensively) to convince distributors to pick their fortnight in the spotlight as the global launch pad for the movie’s audience-building campaign.  Building on its core strengths to tap into new audiences online or diversify into other parts of the film ‘value chain’, as we have previously noted, is a strategy being adopted by more and more festivals. 

But all of that continues to rely on the almost magical quality that successful festivals generate – the ability to ‘anoint’ films and filmmakers with a seal of approval that emerges, not simply from the programmers’ expertise at picking what they believe will be hailed as ‘discoveries’ but from the collective endorsement of that proposition by crowds of people sitting in a darkened room amidst the heightened atmosphere of a festival.  From when the credits roll (and sadly increasingly before, as the less than fully engrossed tweet their mid second-act opinions to the world) buzz either builds positively or negatively and alert industry ears (re)form their provisional pre-screening opinions accordingly.  Presiding over both the alchemy and the haggling that engineers those moments is the irreducible skill of a film festival director and in its search for a worthy successor to Hannah McGill to combine the roles of alchemist and illusionist we wish the EIFF well.

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