Posts Tagged 'EIFF'

East meets west in darkened rooms

My Edinburgh International Film Festival day (Monday 24th June) began with two contrasting films and ended with two contrasting film makers. The films were John McKay’s ‘Not Another Happy Ending‘ which closes the festival and Paul Wright’s ‘For Those In Peril ‘. I’m not going to say which I preferred, which will get a bigger audience or which will win more prizes. What’s more important is that two such diverse films have been made in Scotland at the same time, both supported by public funds including Creative Scotland and both screening at EIFF. One is unmistakably influenced by a western-facing transatlantic sensibility, the other by a continental European one. They meet, geographically-speaking, in Scotland, but two distinct Scotlands. One is decidedly urban, contemporary middleclass, central Scotland, the other east to north east, working class, fishing town scotland. Wright’s film combines the wind-sheared and emotionally guarded with the pagan, elemental world that writers like Neil Gunn and Grassick Gibbon infused their work with, navigating between the real and the imagined. McKay’s conjures a fictional world in the world of fiction but one which which pays tribute to the canon of the romcom whereas Wright’s follows a poetic code that blows more from the east.

At the end of the day I listened to two masters of the documentary, Alan Berliner and Victor Kossakovsky, trade mock insults and real insights into the art of making the real poetic and the invisible visible. They too follow a western and an eastern road. Berliner, who first visited the EIFF in 1987 and told a charming story of knowing no-one in the (long gone) festival bar (where cinema three is now) until Roger Ebert came up to him and congratulated him on his film, gets almost uncomfortably close to his subjects not the least reason being they are often his family. Kossokofsky on the other hand, observes them from afar but somehow gets equally close. Two roads to a similar place, but travelled in a different way. Kossakovsky can point a camera out of his apartment window (in Tishe!) and find the human condition in a group of road menders, Berliner points his at his cousin as he enters the world of the Alzheimer’s sufferer (in First Cousin Once Removed). They joke about stealing each others ideas but the truth is they see the same world through different lenses and that is what makes cinema a richer place.

Film skills and training – who cares, who pays, who benefits?

Film skills strategy is a topic that tends to come round at five year intervals in line with the UK policy cycle which dictates that strategies should run for around five years and film bodies should get merged or abolished every ten years or so (see last post).  With the BFI resurgent as film policy top dog and Skillset re-emerging from an enforced period of silence on its future plans due to their logical dependence on the outcome of the DCMS/Lord Smith film policy review and the BFI’s strategic review, we are entering into a renewed period of deliberation on priorities and purse-strings – hence the EIFF panel session ‘What does the future hold for Skills Training and Development?‘ I’m moderating on Monday at Midday.

Since the era-defining publication of A Bigger Picture in 1998 which put training and skills very firmly in the centre of UK film policy, a lot of time and money has been spent on all kinds of training and education from individual bursaires to a significant (if declining) investment in the UK Screen (now Film) Academies [interest delcared, I’m director of one of them, Screen Academy Scotland].  From construction skills to cinematography and screenwriting to SFX, few aspects of film-making have not been addressed by schemes, short courses, seminars and subsidies.  Has it helped the UK turn a corner in terms of responding to the concern expressed by the British Film Commission that “increasing levels of investment in the training of filmmakers and technicians in other territories, along with improved fiscal incentives, will provide stiffer competition for future UK inward investment”?  Has it consolidated at least the first few rungs of ‘the ladder of opportunity that the Smith Review wants to see extended  “to address the needs of those working on their second or third feature film   and the BFI feels is not yet there when it highlights the need to “Ensure that future skills strategies provide a ladder of opportunity through effective alignment and integration with policies focusing on the development and education of young people “?  These are some of the questions which a panel including the BFI’s Eddie Berg, Creative Skillset’s Dan Simmons, First Light’s  Leigh Thomas and David Pope of Advance Films will be chewing over at Monday’s session.  Hope to see you there and we’ll return with some of the highlights in a later post.

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.

Festivals on demand

Sticking with festivals and Video on Demand (see yesterdays post) some query the wisdom of festivals pursuing a distribution platform that has been around for some time and appears to some not to have fulfilled its promise. Exactly a decade ago analysts were predicting  that ‘enhanced TV’ would be worth $20bn by 2004 (See The Hollywood Reporter April 28 2000).  Well ten years on Screen Digest estimates global VOD revenues in 2009 to have been a more modest $2.9bn (about a fifth the size of the DVD market) and to reach $5.3bn by 2012.

However according to  Screen International  VOD may be on the edge of a breakthrough as DVD sales fall, the multiplication of ways in which to access VOD content – game consoles, TVs with built in web connection – and more sophisticated pricing strategies secure its place in the domestic living room.  The rub here, though, is that contrary to what fans of the Long Tail might expect, ‘speciality’ films appear not to be benefiting from this democratisation of distribution channels.  Why?  because VOD reproduces the ‘aggregator’ role that distributors/video stores/online DVD rental outlets like LoveFilm etc. play in selecting, curating and promoting titles.

This is where Festivals could find a niche – with the potential to leverage their programming skills and ‘brand value’ in creating a VOD ‘label’ (and assuming they can do a deal with a carrier) a festival like Edinburgh could make like a ‘Metrodome/Soda/Optimum’ .  (I would have included Tartan Films but sadly they went bust in 2008).

Why bother with Cable/Satellite VOD when you could do the whole thing online?  Well there are a variety of reasons including anti-piracy, security of payment, the ‘installed base’ of things like hotel Pay-TV but also marketing and ‘perceived value’ advantages.  In any event go-ahead festivals like Tribeca and others are trying to test out where and how they can use their market knowledge to create additional revenue streams that get the movies they love to show seen more widely. 

Not content with getting a slice of the distribution action, not a few festivals – such as Adelaide and Melbourne – have also set themselves up as financier/producers.  That some of their investments result in films that then premiere at their festival neatly closes the loop from production to distribution.  Following that model the EIFF could become a rival to  (or perhaps more accurately complement) Scottish Screen/Creative Scotland and the existing production companies…

Film festival seeks out screens nearer you

With recent volcanic activity reminding us of how much we take air travel for granted, cineastes trying to reduce their carbon footprint may be cheered by the Tribeca film festival’s determination to extend its audience reach through Video on Demand.   The much-loved festival was founded in 2002 (by Robert De Niro amongst others) as a cultural riposte to 9/11 and is now launching an online presence which offers not just clips, comments, reviews and bookings but a dozen full-length films simultaneous with their festival premiere .  Reaching potentially 40 million cable-TV homes courtesy of deals with the likes of Time Warner and Comcast, the Festival aims to extend its brand into online, DVD and theatrical distribution.

Beyond the festival box office

The Tribeca move reflects the upheaval in film distribution generally and its impact on festivals in particular.  Feeling the squeeze of declining sponsorship and public funds, an ever more crowded festival calendar, new platforms to profile films before they are picked up by distributors and, at the same time, new opportunities to  reach audiences hundreds if not thousands of miles and not a few dollars away from a festival, taking the festival to those eyeballs and leveraging its hit-picking expertise down thevalue chain to distribution and sales is rapidly becoming the festival survival strategy of choice.

Edinburgh – the moving image centre of the north?

Where does this leave our own and the word’s longest continuously running film festival?  Well that’s a question which will no doubt be put later this month to the candidates for the newly created post of CEO of the Centre for the Moving Image (CMI).  The CMI brings together the Edinburgh International Film Festival and Filmhouse in a new corporate entity with designs on exhibition, education, incubation and possibly a great deal more.  Bulging at the seams of its Lothian Road premises the desire to find a new, bigger and better base has been around for some years but extending the Festival/Filmhouse brand into virtual space is likely to feature strongly as well.

EIFF faces some very significant challenges in the coming year – not the least being the end of a very substantial three year uplift in funding from the UK Film Council.  The £1.9 million over three years that the UKFC awarded the Festival in 2008 runs out this year and there is virtually no prospect of a remotely similar sum becoming available again – not the least because the UKFC has been told by the Government to lose £25m from its budget over three years to divert to the Olympics.  In an effort to protect production investment the Council, says CEO John Woodward in Screen International got rid of a number of things which were nice to do but in the cold hard reality of having less money, we just couldn’t do any more.”  And amongst those “there was a big festival fund and a digital archive fund which have both gone.”  That leaves the EIFF with a drop in income of around £600K a year – not much fun for Artistic Director Hannah McGill or the incoming uber-CEO at precisely the time when raising its game and expanding its reach in time and space  is absolutely imperative.  Likewise a bigger, better building with the potential to add a third dimension to EIFF and Filmhouse is a critical component in any development plan but would seem to be as far away as ever.

Will Creative Scotland and its new CEO Andrew Dixon play a (benign) deus ex machina in this local staging of a global drama?  Not to the tune of £600k a year one has to wager but some serious investment allied to a far-sighted vision and coherent strategy on the part of both CMI and Creative Scotland is clearly required if the twin stars of EIFF and Filmhouse are to shine brighter in these occluded times (and that’s not a reference to the Icelandic ash cloud which not surprisingly has been a headache for film festivals as well).


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