New direction at Edinburgh fest


LONDON -- The Edinburgh International Film Festival takes place in a city that plays host to 16 other festivals throughout the year, and during the film shindig organizers have to adopt a loud voice when shouting for audiences amid a blizzard of high-profile events.

Potential audiences already are having their ears bent by stand-up comedians at the world's largest performing arts gathering, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, jazz musicians tootling for the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Fest, and even bookish types looking to curl up at night with a good read after attending the Edinburgh International Book Festival.

The pressure is ramped up this year as well because the film jamboree -- which does lay claim to being the longest continually running movie festival in the world -- introduces its loyal public and industry audiences in August to a new artistic director and an official theme for the first time in its history.

Incoming artistic director Hannah McGill is tasked with the mission of building on the success of one of the world's most established film festivals while still retaining what the industry and festivalgoers alike regard as its intimate and informative feel.

"It's very, very exciting and at the same time overwhelming and frightening when you stop and think about it," McGill says. "But you are so busy and under so much pressure when you are putting the festival together that you don't have time to stop and be nervous."

For a festival with such an auspicious life span -- held in a city regarded as being occasionally austere and the natural bedrock for the Scottish establishment -- bringing a "modern," newfangled idea like a theme is considered by many to be worthy of a raised eyebrow or two.

It is perhaps understandable, then, that the first theme for the EIFF to play out under is "Cinema and the Written Word," for the Scottish capital in 2004 was designated a world city of literature by UNESCO and even boasts a dedicated bus tour to celebrate the city's literary greats. Think Muriel Spark, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and now Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh among others.

The introduction of the theme was McGill's first act after taking over as EIFF top artistic dog following the end of last year's event. Before joining the EIFF in a full-time role, McGill was a film critic and cinema columnist with the Glasgow-based Herald newspaper in Scotland and was a program consultant with the EIFF. She also had short stories published by maverick publisher Canongate Publishing and broadcast on pubcaster BBC.

"It was my idea, and it has something to do with my coming from a writing background," McGill says of the theme. "It is certainly an area of obsession for me."

McGill also says choosing a theme is as much about attracting audiences as her own wordy obsession. "Looking at the very crowded market of film festivals around, I think we are saying it is no longer enough for a small festival to simply put on films and say to an audience, 'Look at these.' You have to give people a reason to be there beyond just filing people in and out of the cinema."

She also says that the growing global profile of screenwriters in recent years got her thinking.

"People tend to be focused on talent, directors, actors (and) stars, and sometimes screenwriters are a bit overlooked. But writers such as Charlie Kaufman in the U.S. and Peter Morgan, Patrick Marber and others in the U.K. have really begun to be recognized," McGill says. "I really wanted to define what we would be doing this year at the festival. So we are saying to festivalgoers and the industry representatives that come, 'We'll show you the films, and then we can explore the movies from there.' "

The new director said that when she took the reins from the previous incumbent -- the outspoken and highly quotable Shane Danielseon -- she dug out a pile of old programs from the 1960s and '70s to get a feel for Edinburgh's history.

"There was a greater focus on the intellectual talking points of world cinema back then," says McGill says, who believes the film industry, which has historically regarded Edinburgh as a launchpad for U.K. distribution campaigns, should be able to adapt to the theme.

Having worked at the festival as a programmer for five years, McGill also notes the popularity in recent editions of master classes and Q&As, an industry favorite.

Through panel events, master classes, workshops and discussions with filmmaker guests, the festival aims to explore approaches to screenwriting and literary adaptation, relationships between screenwriters and directors, and the position of screenwriters within the international industry.

The festival, which was extended last year by two days to accommodate the event's 60th birthday celebration, resorts to its former length this year and runs Aug. 15-26.

McGill also feels that now, more than ever, with the availability of art house screening venues up and down the country -- whether it is the City Screen network, the Edinburgh Filmhouse, which plays host as one of the main venues for the festival, or the National Film Theater in London -- audiences have far more regular opportunity to see different kinds of movies.

"People here have massive access to the kind of films that festivals show these days. You can now see interesting films all year around. As a festival organizer, you have to offer audiences something more for them to engage with," she says. "A film festival focuses the attention, and you have a very concentrated span of time where the audience are in one place watching a lot of movies. That gives us the freedom to create a talking shop."