2006 Edinburgh Film Festival

Sixty years after its humble beginning as a showcase for documentaries, the event has evolved into an eclectic platform for global cinema.

LONDON -- It doesn't have a market, its hunt for sponsors has been a challenge, and programming pressure from other festivals has never been more intense, but the Edinburgh International Film Festival has managed to stay influential and relevant in a world of ever-multiplying movie shindigs.

Now, as the event celebrates its 60th anniversary, Edinburgh has quietly become the longest continuously running film festival in the world. Having begun in the aftermath of World War II, Edinburgh, running through Aug. 27, was able to avoid a forced break despite the fighting, unlike the Venice Film Festival and the Festival de Cannes.

Edinburgh has come a long way since its inception all those years ago as the brainchild of a movie society known as the Edinburgh Film Guild, which set up shop to showcase postwar documentaries. In a tip of the cap to the festival's nonfiction origins, this year, organizers have added an award for documentary filmmaking, as well as an extra two days to the fest's traditional 12-day lineup.

Outgoing artistic director Shane Danielsen says that while there is a palpable increase in audience interest in documentaries, Edinburgh's level of programming this year is fairly consistent with the previous five years he has spent at the helm.

"Every year, the documentary section is somewhere around the 20-22 films mark," he says. "Documentaries are always key to Edinburgh, and we live in such interesting times that (audience) interest has only grown. The growth in mainstream documentaries is interesting."

While docus remain important at Edinburgh, the festival has developed into a diverse film event that screens everything from experimental films to feature-length animation and shorts. Such evolution is the key to survival in a world of burgeoning film festivals.

And like at film fests around the world, the search for corporate sponsors hasn't been easy. Festival organizers were hit hard at the end of 2003, when a contract with FilmFour, the event's headline sponsor, came to an end.

While that left a sizable gap in the fest's funding, it had been anticipated by the event's board, guided by the watchful eye of Edinburgh managing director Ginnie Atkinson.

"We're competing with 16 other festivals in Edinburgh alone," says Atkinson, who notes that corporate sponsorship for such an event is extremely complicated.

The team quickly shifted, putting together a tapestry of topline festival partners led by assurance giant Standard Life, as well as movie theater operator Cineworld Cinemas and spirits-maker the Famous Grouse.

"For the last seven years, the film festival gathered around 45% of income from sponsorship, which is something that is simply not achievable now in the current economic climate," Atkinson says. "The normal balance for arts events is between 30% and 35% from sponsorship, with the rest from other funders, which is something we have achieved for the last two years."

The festival sells an average of 70% of its venue's capacity in tickets to the paying public -- high by festival standards, reassuring partners that they are backing a winner.

The vagaries of funding aside, the festival maintains a recalcitrant attitude towards competitive sections, with its best-known nod, the Michael Powell Award for Best New British Feature Film, introduced relatively recently in 1993.

Danielsen thinks there is little need for more festival prizes. "When you have major prizes on offer -- be they Golden Bears (at the Berlin International Film Festival), (Golden) Lions (at Venice), Palmes (at Cannes) or whatever -- it just becomes a major ego trip for filmmakers, but what does it actually mean? The only one that really matters is the Palme d'Or, and even then it is not an Oscar," Danielsen says.

The pressure that other festivals exert on Edinburgh's programrs has grown over the years, but Danielsen says Edinburgh benefits by having no illusions about its place on the fest calendar.

"In terms of getting those huge Hollywood films -- now that Venice (is) an intense world-press premiere platform -- it is hard," Danielsen says. "But we are aware there is a hierarchy of film festivals, and as long as we are aware of that, we can always try and occasionally punch above our weight."

Still, most agree Edinburgh occupies a very different position than its overseas rivals and even manages to overshadow the sprawling and noncompetitive London Film Festival, which runs every fall.

In fact, producer Andrew Macdonald, whose credits include "Shallow Grave," "Trainspotting," "The Beach" and "28 Days Later," released in the U.S. in 1995, 1996, 2000 and 2003, respectively, describes Edinburgh as the industry's "most relevant festival in the U.K."

"London is a different kind of film festival," Macdonald says. "Edinburgh is a genuine showcase for moviemaking. I can't really remember a film starting out at London, but Edinburgh has a palpable sense of discovery."

"Pressure from other festivals is very strong, but one of the things that pleases me about Edinburgh is you are probably not going to be able to see our titles anywhere else. At least a third of our gala films have no distribution in place," Danielsen says. "I can't see London ever opening with a film with no distribution. London is a platform festival used to launch films with distribution. There is no sense of palpable discovery there. As long as the visions for both festivals remain so different, the rivalry is not so big an issue."

Indeed, Edinburgh has witnessed the first outings of a host of movie discoveries over the years, most recently 2005's British and South African film "Tsotsi," directed by Gavin Hood, which opened last year's event. Prior to that, actor Richard E. Grant's directorial debut, the biopic "Wah-Wah," also premiered at the festival without distribution.

"Tsotsi" went on to seal a deal for U.S. distribution with Miramax and won a best foreign language Oscar in March, while "Wah-Wah" secured a home with Samuel Goldwyn Films in the U.S. and Lionsgate in the U.K. This year's opener, "The Flying Scotsman," has no distribution and hopes to achieve similar success in finding a way to screens.

"I wait until Venice and (the Toronto International Film Festival) for deals but always get a list of what is on in Edinburgh so we can contact the sales agents and ask them what is what," one buyer adds.

Robert Mitchell, managing director of Buena Vista International, U.K. and Ireland, says the diversity of the festival coupled with top-notch organization make Edinburgh a must-attend event.

"It has a wide range of product on show," Mitchell says. "I really like the Edinburgh Film Festival, and it is part of a bigger arts festival up there. The place is always buzzing. There are a few awards, it is well run, and there always is an eclectic mix of films showing."

BVI has taken several titles to Edinburgh to help give them a push, with highlights including "Mrs. Brown," "Rabbit-Proof Fence" and "Calendar Girls," released in the U.S. in 1997, 2002 and 2003, respectively, as well as "Kinky Boots," released in the U.S. this year by Miramax.

"The only problem for the organizers, not us, is where it falls in the calendar, with it being before Venice and Toronto," Mitchell says.

Apart from the film slate, Edinburgh also has developed a solid reputation for handling talent well, providing a famously relaxed and informal backdrop and, of course, throwing a good party.

This year, the bash will include a nod to the fest's patron, legendary Scotsman Sean Connery, who will receive a special British Academy of Film and Television Arts Scotland Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film.

With Danielsen departing, the mantle of good evaluation skills and strong artistic direction -- both essential to being an effective curator -- passes to Hannah McGill, who will take the reins as artistic director when Danielsen steps down at the end of this year's event.

One thing's for sure: Danielsen won't be around to find out what happens next.

"I'm a great believer in walking away," he says. "I may curate another festival's retrospective section if someone asked me to, but I wouldn't ever be able to replicate the control over decision making I have enjoyed here."
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