Edinburgh and the Future of Film Fests

'Edinburgh' photo (c) 2009, Moyan Brenn - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

For my money, there’s no better reading right now in the film world than David Cairn’s excellent series of interview posts on the Edinburgh Film Festival. You can read the latest one here, and part one and two here. I think this is essential reading for anyone who cares about film fests, the film industry, the state of and future of film going…or about the state of culture generally.

Why are they so great? Well, there’s been a lot of griping about this year’s Edinburgh Int’l Film Fest, but David’s series is going beyond the gripe. He’s interviewing several people involved with the festival, promising to also run an interview with this year’s artistic manager, and he’s not concentrating on the bad. For example, he starts by asking them to talk about their favorite moment’s from their history with the festival. The stories he hears are great, and tell us a lot about what makes a great film fest, as well as why people keep working at them. A few gripes do get shared, but what comes across the most is a great discussion about why festivals matter, what they mean to their local community and the film industry, and how that might evolve. I’m finding them a fascinating and much needed discussion.

What is most striking to me is the fact that I can’t imagine anyone in the US film news/blog scene doing anything remotely as important as this. Seriously. No offense to my friends in the film news space, but what has happened and is happening in Edinburgh is worthy of some serious reporting. Not just from the current perspective of “oh shit, this was a bad year,” but from the perspectives of: there’s great change facing many film festivals, what can we learn here?; Edinburgh has a glorious history, what did it use to do that we can learn from by examining the past?; How is film going changing?; What does it mean to run/be a film festival today?; and yes, Who is at fault and what can be done??!!

On that last note, can I just say publicly, since no one else is doing so:

Give me a f-in break people. Quit blaming artistic director James Mullighan for all the woes of Edinburgh this year. He may be a friend, but even if he was an enemy, I would point out that he only took the job some four months before the festival, he inherited many problems and the buck doesn’t stop with the artistic director. He had no time to do much of anything, and even less budget. As much as I loved Hannah and her predecessors (and am not pinning the blame to them either), I have attended the festival for the last few years, and there was a lot of (less public) griping going on about many of these same issues. The problems didn’t just start this year. He also seems to have experimented with some cool new programming that actually worked, as well. And last, and to my mind most importantly – the problems facing the Edinburgh Film Festival are arguably completely in the realm of the management level, not the artistic one, and I’d be willing to bet that ANY artistic director with less problems on this front could experiment more and honor the past more than was possible here. Let’s face it – if the festival is losing money, bringing in an artistic director too late and losing both big name support and street cred, the buck stops at a higher level. Without having met the CEO or board of the festival I am quite certain that’s where the blame should be placed.

Yep, them’s fighting words, but no one I’ve read yet has convinced me otherwise.

In the meantime, every film festival director and their board chair should make this series of posts a must-read for their entire staff and board. There should be a staff/board retreat dedicated to thinking about what can be learned from this debacle, and if you happen to run a film conference attended by many festival people, or maybe a conference for festivals…ahem…perhaps you should consider a panel about this as well.

In closing, so it doesn’t seem I’m wallowing in anyone’s failures and changes – I have loved the Edinburgh Film Fest since I first attended it. I’ve liked every staff person there that I have met, and think they are doing an excellent, hard job and took too much criticism this year. I think it can and will become an important festival again. Its problems can’t be pinned on any one person, but can be linked to leadership failures. I can’t wait to attend it again in the future.

What do you think?

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