Whatever happened to the Edinburgh International Film Festival?
The champagne party may be over, but the EIFF may yet rise again
Back in 2008, the EIFF seemed to be in good shape. A new June slot, a fresh artistic director in the form of Hannah McGill, and a whopping £1.88 million lottery cash investment from the Film Council, in addition to financial support from Scottish Screen and a raft of sponsors seemed to suggest the festival’s self-appointed ‘discovery’ mission could widen its audience appeal.
Three years later, in the light of the Film Council’s demise, falling attendances and the failure to appoint a new director, the Centre for the Moving Image and EIFF’s chief executive Gavin Miller announced a shake-up of the festival. He abolished the post of artistic director in favour of visiting curators, and a new blueprint was created with guidance from former festival directors Mark Cousins and Lynda Myles, and from star Tilda Swinton. With a number of unusual venues to be pressed into service for screenings, Cousins has conceived on a theme called ‘All That Heaven Allows’, but the suggestion by new festival producer/director James Mullighan that the EIFF would go ‘back to the drawing board’ in 2011 reflects the festival’s gradual change of fortunes over the previous decade.
With the various Edinburgh festivals in August still money-spinners, the decision to disconnect and move the EIFF to June was a big gamble. Up against popular TV events like Wimbledon, the World Cup and the European Championships, it only took a blast of hot weather in 2010 to put the attendance numbers on the slide.
But well before the move, the EIFF had lost its reputation as a benchmark of quality, with most major distributors preferring to launch their wares at Cannes, Venice, Toronto or London. The EIFF programme became a dumping ground for sub-standard Film Council fare and paltry leftovers from the festival circuit. Occasional gems like Gareth Edwards’ Monsters still appeared, but in the context of widespread straight-to DVD mediocrity. Red carpets were rolled out, but few big name stars or directors attended, and those who did often premiered their films elsewhere. The cash supposedly used to encourage ‘audience development’ was spent, and produced no meaningful return. Once the £1.88 million had been ineffectually blown, the EIFF had to scale down.
The pressure is on. Although it was only founded seven years ago, the Glasgow Film Festival is already managing to sell just as many tickets on a tiny fraction of Edinburgh’s budget, leaving the EIFF with little choice but to get back to basics and to rebuild its relationship not just with the worldwide industry but also with local, paying audiences which it had previously alienated. The champagne party may be over, but the once-potent EIFF brand may yet rise again.