Sydney fest opens with 'Looking for Eric'

12-day competition gets under way with Cannes entry

SYDNEY -- Aussie actors Miranda Otto, Rachel Taylor and Bryan Brown, along with directors Rachel Ward and Gillian Armstrong, were out in force Wednesday for the opening night of the Sydney Film Festival and its second official competition.

In just two years, the visibility of the festival internationally has increased to the extent where getting films like the opening-night feature, Ken Loach's "Looking for Eric," which screened In Competition at May's Festival de Cannes, is a given, where several years ago it was unlikely, festival director Clare Stewart said.

Having an official competition appears to be paying off, "as it's certainly making a difference to securing that kind of film," she said.

And while introducing the competition last year has leveraged the profile of the festival internationally, it also plays an important role for Australian films, Stewart said.

"We saw it last year with 'Three Blind Mice' -- the only Australian film in competition -- which after its Sydney debut went on to success in the Toronto and London festivals," she noted.

This year three Australian films are in the 12-film competition, including Rachael Ward's debut feature, "Beautiful Kate," Khoa Da's "Missing Water" and Steve Jacobs "Disgrace."

The dozen films in competition make up just one-tenth of the festival's overall feature program of 120 films.

Ticket sales are on target to meet the record attendance numbers of 2007 and '08. Creating buzz among audiences with sessions already sold out are the two screenings of Jim Jarmusch's "The Limits of Control," the documentary "Contact" and Australian urban race-based feature "Cedar Boys."

The decision, meanwhile, to shorten the festival from 19 to 12 days this year, bringing it in line with other major festivals globally, has meant a stronger engagement with audiences and filmmaker.

"There was a collective sigh of relief that the festival was condensed and contained and a lot more manageable and navigable," Stewart said.

In addition, the increased international focus and number of foreign guests is allowing the festival to formalize a number of industry events surrounding the screenings.

A new initiative this year is a full-day conference set for Friday, with speakers including Jack Arbuthnot, BBC Films development editor, Christophe Mercier vp of Fox Searchlight Europe and Bright Star producer Jan Chapman, who'll be discussing co-production and financing opportunities.