Edinburgh Film Festival - changing for the better

Artistic director Hannah McGill talks about her festival of discovery, accessibility for all and the shifting sands of film distribution.

by Amber Wilkinson

Edinburgh hosts the longest continually running film festival in the world, which notches up its 64th edition this year. Hannah McGill is celebrating her fourth year at the helm, a period that has seen big changes at the festival including a shift of date from August to June and a change of emphasis, putting the focus on new discoveries. Unlike some festivals, which seem to change their tagline as frequently as the average cinemagoer buys popcorn, this change of tack has happened comparatively slowly, which, says Hannah, was always the plan.

"It was something that we were introducing over the past three years," says Hannah. "Technically, it was part of our relaunch when we got the UK Film Council funding in 2008, but you can't reinvent the wheel too quickly or you freak people out. We have got very loyal audience members, so the way we wanted to do it was to kind of introduce it gradually. To get people used to the idea that they were going to see more that was unfamiliar, that more world premieres were a focus for us, that we weren't so much pursuing the standard big film festival films any more but that we were trying to do something a bit more underground and edgy.

"This year we have an entirely new marketing department and they were keen that the campaign should be quite aggressive about the discovery message - and it's what I wanted as well. And it seems that's really worked because it's not just emphasising that we're all about discovery now, it's saying all the way back we were about that. So, yeah, I think this year is the year we've really gone in heavy with that message. And it's been quite good for us because it's tied in with trends in the film industry anyway, ie that our kinds of films - smaller and niche films - are not getting picked up by distributors, so there's a lot more out there that hasn't got distribution yet."

The shifting sands of the industry are increasingly well documented. Social media has thrown open the doors to filmmakers to go their own way and with increasing numbers of films screening online and niche film festivals popping up all over the word, there are, arguably, more ways than ever for a producer to get a film into the marketplace, while retaining more control over how the film is presented.

"We're working with distributors so much less," says Hannah "That's partly by design but it's also just the way it's going. We go to them and they say, 'We haven't got the budget on this film to do two premieres. We're just going to release them when we release them.' Or they have to go date-for-date with LA. So actually being able to deal with producers and sales agents on films that no one's ever heard of has fallen in quite nicely with what our plan was anyway."

Although Hannah admits the timing of any festival is "bloody awkward because the year is so crowded" she is pleased with the move from August to June, which she says has helped to raise EIFF's profile and make it more of a stand-alone event.

"As nice as it was in many ways to be part of that jamboree in August, I do think our identity as a film festival was a bit subsumed," she says. "I could never convince people that we were not part of some entity called The Edinburgh Festival - which doesn't even exist, you know. And I think it was something we had to build over years but I think people are now starting to see this is exclusively a film event.

"The difference in press coverage is immense, which is what I wanted to get from it. The audiences have been really strong. At the moment, the issue is that inevitably we're up against Cannes in terms of our programming dates and finalisation of the programme and that's annoying because Cannes comes along and takes up everybody's time. A lot of people delay their decisions until Cannes have made their decisions and that's a nightmare. But I don't know where else we could go - we certainly can't move again. I think in terms of the time of year when the festival happens, it's lovely. Edinburgh in June is gorgeous, and it's nice to be at the beginning of the summer.

"It separates us more. We were too close to London so people would just go, do I want to premiere in August or October...we were going after a lot of the same films, whereas now it's a clear decision whether you want an early summer premiere or you want to be in the autumn. London is going to pick up more on the BAFTA and Oscar films and that whole period of glitzy gala things going almost into Christmas. I think in a funny kind of way that it suits the personalities of the two festivals, in that they're kind of darkness and glitz and big red carpets and flash bulbs and we've got that stay out all night drinking vibe. I'm thinking the first year that we were in June, I was standing outside at the first night party at 11.30pm and it was still light and I was thinking, 'this is really weird' but you know that feverish feeling you get in summer in Scotland suits us."

This year will also mark the first time that Edinburgh has screened some of its films online - another development at film festivals that seems to be gathering pace - with Raindance being something of a trailblazer in this department and other festivals, including Sundance and Tribeca following suit. Hannah says that it something the festival has been working on doing for years, stretching as far back as plans for a DVD label. Now, however, technology has marched on and several of the films will receive the online treatment this year via Projector.TV.

Hannah adds: "I'm still waiting to see how it works. We had long thought, well wouldn't it be lovely if we could get some of the films that don't have distribution and make them available somehow. But once you wade into the mire of rights and once you engage with filmmakers about how they feel about it... the year before last we were very close to doing it, but every filmmaker that we went to said, 'Oh, it'll blow all my film premiere status for the rest of the world.' And we were saying, 'No it won't because we'll only legally be able to show it in the UK...'

"It's very complicated and we don't have enough time and resources. It was going to require a whole actual department of the festival, which we didn't have at the time. So what was great was that Projector.TV came along and wanted to do something very similar which means that we can do a test run of it with their very generous help. And the response they've had from the people that they've gone to has shown us that there's been a real shift in that the people that would have said no to us last year are now saying yes.

"It gives them the branding and credibility of the festival rather than just going everywhere and, you know, what I find interesting in talking to some of the producers that have got distribution along the way, is that some of them say, 'I wish we hadn't bothered. We could have done a festival run, a limited cinema release that we arranged ourselves and gone straight to the internet and that would have cost us far less and been much more effective than a small-scale distribution campaign with no marketing budget.'"

Given the plethora of options open for filmmakers now to get their films to some sort of a market - not to mention the massive increase in the number of film festivals that are now taking place around the globe - you can't help but wonder if it has become more difficult for programmers to get the films that they want. Hannah says there are pros and cons.

"Every single film is a different negotiation," she says. "With some people, it's easy as pie - they get the festival, they respond to our enthusiasm. Some people are very difficult for various reasons, either because they don't see festivals as an effective revenue stream or because they don't have a coherent strategy for the film - they don't know what they should be doing.

"I mean, the number of filmmakers who say, 'We're trying to get in to Cannes.' Only certain kinds of films get into Cannes. And I, with my many years of experience of Cannes and many other festivals, can quite easily say to them, 'Don't. That's the wrong thing for your film. Go to a smaller festival, do this, do that. Not necessarily come to Edinburgh even, but don't just set your sights on the Big Four, because even if you did get in, you'd be lost, you'd be swamped.'

"Sometimes it's not the right thing. So it depends on how informed and focused the filmmakers are on what they want. Also, one problem that we do come up against increasingly is, because fewer films sell to distributors generally, sales agents now want to make money out of putting their films in festivals. We, conventionally, don't pay screening fees for anything and we get away with that solely on the basis of our seniority and our high reputation. But we are increasingly being asked for them. We're still not paying them but it's going to be a problem down the line for more and more smaller festivals.

"And particular territories are insistent about it, like Japan and India - they expect quite a lot of money. And we just say, 'No if you want to play in Edinburgh, you get the prestige, you get the press coverage but we don't have the budget to spend paying you. We'll bring your talent over if we can - that's our priority.' It's not a market, so that's going to be an increasing problem. I understand, because these sales agents have got to get revenue. Once they've picked these films up. I would always much rather deal directly with a producer."

In fact, Hannah is very optimistic about the film industry in general.

"People keep saying filmmaking is at risk," she says. "But I think the endangered species actually the intermediate people, the middlemen - distributors, sales agents and PR companies are the ones who are suffering because filmmakers are saying, 'Do I really need all this?' and if you've got a really smart producer, they can find a route to market without all those bells and whistles."

Of all the things Hannah seems most proud of, its the accessibility of Edinburgh.

"What I always wanted was that the festival would feel approachable and friendly," she says. "I think we suffered a lot, as all the Edinburgh Festivals do to one extent or another, with being seen as elitist. And it's always frustrated the hell out me. Because I always say to people, 'It's only elitist if someone is standing on the door saying: you can't come in.' If people feel like they're shut out of it, that's in their heads.

"But somehow I didn't quite feel that our message had got across that it was for everybody. That just because some of the films are 'in foreign' that it doesn't mean they are incomprehensible. And I think there's something really negative about that separation of culture. That people go, there's the fancy people over here and then there's us that go to see Transformers. I really wanted to bring those audiences together and I feel that's happening more. And I would like to think that we present a friendly face and that we are approachable and that the audiences feel close to us and close to the talent. And that it's not velvet ropes and red carpets and you shall not enter. But that it does feel friendly and sociable."

And, of course, change is still afoot at the festival. This year, Ginnie Atkinson, who had been managing director of EIFF stepped down after 15 years in the role. An interim MD was installed to deliver this year's festival and her full-time replacement is "going to be worked on in the aftermath of this year's festival". There is no word on who the replacement will be, but Hannah says she thinks there will be a "slightly different structure". This year also marks the end of the Film Council's investment.

"They may continue to invest in us one way or another but that particular fund is now at an end," says Hannah. "It was great, because we could strategise with them to be as useful as possible to their way of working and to identify with them where they thought the gaps were in training and exposure for smaller strands of films. So it was useful in that way, on the other hand, who knows what's going to happen everywhere? There's a new Government, there's going to be massive cutbacks everywhere. The Film Council already faces massive cutbacks, so public funding itself is in a wobbly position. And we're in the same position as a filmmaker really, we can't look to the future and say, we'll fill in the forms and wait for the public funding to come in, it's not going to work like that any more. And that's not through anyone's failings except the world's banks."

That, however, is doubtless a funding issue to be looked at another day. For now, there's two week's of some of the best of world cinema and star-spotting to look forward to as the festival kicks off on with The Illusionist on Wednesday, June 16. It seems Hannah is looking forward to the festival just as much as the rest of the city.

"Every year I would like to think I know what I'm doing more, so there's less anxiety, so it's more fun because there's more space to be excited," she says. "The festival itself is hectic but I really enjoy it, because you are finally meeting these people who you have been thinking about all year."

We'll be bringing you daily news, reviews and features from the Festival from June 16 and, as a little taster, here's some of the films our reviewers are most looking forward to...

Andrew Robertson: I am most looking forward to the new Werner Herzog, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, The Illusionist, and the short film programming, because while short film is doing okay on the internet, little things on the big screen are totally the way to go.

James Benefield: I'm most looking forward to Ryan Piers Williams' The Dry Land. From some of the later episodes of Ugly Betty, I think it's clear that America Ferrera is a serious acting talent. Hopefully this post-Iraq think-piece will give her a chance to flex her acting chops.

Scott Macdonald: This year, the elephant in the room is Toy Story 3. The animation studio all others are scrabbling to catch - and the early buzz is hugely positive. Additionally, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? should be a great choice - Werner Herzog directs, David Lynch produces - LSD optional. Also, Sir Patrick Stewart is gracing us with a BAFTA interview. I'd have to turn in my geek card if I wasn't going to enjoy Jean-Luc Picard in person.

As for me, I've been lucky enough to see around 10 of the films showing at Edinburgh this year already. Of those I have caught, I strongly recommend extraordinary, hard-hitting Afghanistan documentary Restrepo, Debra Granik's wonderfully acted Winter's Bone and Juan Jose Campanella's Oscar-winner The Secret In Their Eyes, which skillfully weaves together romance, comedy and gripping thriller elements. Of those I haven't seen, I'm most looking forward to catching British animation Jackboots On Whitehall, which promises to offer an alternative take on World War II and Donkeys, Morag McKinnon's film that is the second to come out of the Scottish/Danish Advance Party project that spawned the terrific Red Road.

Tickets from the festival are available online from Edfilmfest.org.uk.

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