Sydney steps up festival profile

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SYDNEY -- The 2008 edition of the Sydney Film Festival will add an international film competition in a bid to raise the global profile of the 55-year-old fest and make it a filmmaker destination on par with Sundance, Cannes and Toronto.

The new initiative, backed by AUS$1.8 million ($1.4 million) in funding from the New South Wales state government, was announced Tuesday by SFF patron George Miller and NSW arts minister Frank Sartor.

As part of the new initiative, organizers are looking at whether to shift the dates for the festival, traditionally held over 17 days in early June, beginning in 2009.

The competition's AUS$1.8 million ($1.4 million) in funding has been committed for the next four years and includes an AUS$60,000 prize to be awarded by a jury of three international and two Australian industry figures. The award will be presented to a director or producer showing "new directions in film" and focusing on "cutting-edge cinema with emotional power and resilience."

The SFF Official Competition marks Australia's first international film competition and will be the only Australian prize formally endorsed by the International Federation of Film Producers Assn. It will be open to all fiction films longer than 75 minutes, with 12 to be shortlisted for screening, and the films will be required to have their Australian premieres at the festival.

The move comes three years after the SFF board instituted a new program aimed at revitalizing the festival, which has increased profitability and attendance, with 130,000 Sydney residents and visitors attending this year.

It also comes after the Melbourne International Film Festival, Australia's largest, established a fund this year to invest in new Australian feature films.
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