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State of the Arts: Film festival for Last, and an August return too?

At the height of the uproar and amid the growing sense of crisis which surrounded the Edinburgh International Film Festival in 2011 - with its tepid stripped-down programme, its sense of drift, and general gloom over its future - I had an interesting conversation with Faith Liddell, the head of Festivals Edinburgh, the umbrella body for the 12 major festivals in the capital.

A former director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival herself, she was obviously concerned about the fortunes of the film festival, which seemed at that point to be in the process of sinking. She said that just as one bad festival is often portrayed as a disaster, it only takes one good one to set it back on its feet, the past (almost) forgotten. Well, she seems to be right.

Over time, Gavin Miller, former chief executive, left, as did one-and-done producer/director James Mullighan. Mark Cousins' 'blueprint' for a new type of festival was, it seems, largely shelved.

And this year's film festival, put together by new director Chris Fujiwara, was generally well received. It opened and closed well, with William Friedkin's Killer Joe leading the way, and Brave finishing off the celebrations. Mr Fujiwara, after a perhaps hesistant start, became a fluent ambassador in public settings and with the press. He spoke well to the assembled film producers, directors and movie business types at the Scottish party in Cannes. The festival seemed closer to being itself again: it saw the return of the blessed 'red carpet' events - as I've written before, never been sure what exact benefit these shindigs bring, but the media like to have them because they generate nice pictures - awards, and, more importantly, a sense of direction from the cineaste new art director as well as quiet stability in chief executive Ken Hay. It attracted 40,000 'admissions' over its 12 days.

The festival is still situated at June in the festival calendar, where it has been since 2008. But I think the debate over whether it will return to August is not going to go away. There are some people who believe the festival having its own isolated spot in the calendar in June is a good thing for the festival. It makes it more visible, they say. Others feel the festival misses the attendant buzz of the August festivals, and I have personally heard film people saying they used to enjoy attending Edinburgh in August precisely because they could attend a film, a concert at the Usher Hall and a stand up at the Assembly Rooms, for example. June does not have that draw, nor does it allow films to be taken easily from the biggest film festival, in Cannes, which is held in May.

The festival has a new chairman, as I reported this week, in film producer Bob Last. The producer of The House of Mirth, The Illusionist (which was short listed for an Oscar), and currently making a version of Louise Welsh's novel The Bullet Trick for the big screen directed and written by Bille Eltringham.

So, I asked Mr Last, who will be chair of the Centre for the Moving Image, the parent company of both the festival and the Filmhouse Cinema, for four years, will the festival be returning to August? His answer at least suggested it will be a topic of conversation at board level at some point in the future.

"It is much too early to discuss that or even think about that," he said. "When the festival moved to June I was a 'civilian' and had my opinions on it.... but now I am in this position, our focus should be on next year's festival which I think can be even better and stronger than last year's. It is too soon to start talking about that."

On Chris Fujiwara, he said he was "most emphatically" a key player in the festival going forward: "Absolutely, and I think the team that is in place now can really move forward and make next year's festival one of the best we have had. We are working on next year: that process is ongoing. It is always the case that putting together a festival is a relatively open process until the last minute, but things are moving forward right now." It does indeed seem that the film festival has stabilised. And with Mr Last's interests in music (he was the manager of The Human League), and the processes of film-making in Scotland, it will be interesting to see his influence on the festival as it moves forward.

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