For, if not dead, Edinburgh has certainly been feeling very poorly in recent years, according to its critics. One of Britain's most prestigious film festivals, renowned for its retrospectives and championing of international cinema, it has been accused of losing its way in the 1990s. Charges of unimaginative programming and amateur staging, allied to problems of underfunding and increasing competition from other festivals, left the atmosphere of last year's festival "funereal", according to one observer.
Most of the critical fire has been aimed at Penny Thomson's period in charge, between 1992 and 1994. Thomson, who has since returned to film production, feels her critics have never given her due credit for her achievements.
When she inherited the post from guest director David Robinson in 1992, she was inhibited by a substantial budget deficit. "It was horrible," she says. "There was a full-blown crisis. I think that was why I was hired. I was a successful fundraiser and I knew the film industry extremely well. But I don't think any of us realised how bad it was."
Thomson proved adept at tackling the festival's financial problems. She helped attract sponsorship from Drambuie and, while not solving all the problems, she steered the festival back to financially calmer waters.
"She was good at raising money and did a very good job with the finances," Bill Russell, film critic of the Herald, admits. But, he argues, "Penny was not a great programmer. I think the tendency under Penny was that the festival became Cannes writ large in August."
Allan Hunter, Scotland on Sunday's film critic, agrees. "The festival suffered artistically under her. The programme was not as exciting as it used to be."
Thomson, however, believes that, given the horrendous financial restraints she was operating under, she did a decent job. "Two years out of three, we mounted interesting retrospectives that were tied to visits by directors, and the reason we didn't in the middle year is because we couldn't afford to do it properly."
And whatever critics thought of her programming, the audience seemed to enjoy it. "Despite the mayhem and the sniping of critics, we still managed to double our audience figures in three years flat."
Whatever the artistic merits of Thomson's tenure, few dispute that her efforts over finances have ensured that tyro director Mark Cousins has a festival to programme at all. Cousins concedes that his ambitious plans for this year's festival, the 49th, are only possible thanks to the Drambuie sponsorship, which Thomson helped set in place.
"They give us pounds 100,000, which makes a huge difference to what we can do," he explains. "Our new acronym is Deff, the Drambuie Edinburgh Film Festival and, as Murray Grigor, one of our directors, said 'It's either Deff or death.' That was the state of things."
Instead, Belfast-born Cousins has been able to plan an impressive-looking festival. Guests include Steve Martin, the Coen brothers, and Suso Cecchi D'Amico, the scriptwriter of Italian classics, The Leopard and Bicycle Thieves. Other strands include the New British Expo, a showcase of every British film made in the past year and Rosebud, a section showing films not yet seen on the festival circuit. A Stanley Donen retrospective is also planned.
Daniel Battsek of Buena Vista is one distributor happy with the new direction. "I'm very encouraged by the line-up, the organisation and the people behind this year's festival. I think it's going to be very exciting and I think it's going to put Edinburgh back on the map as far as film festivals are concerned."
That map, however, is looking very crowded these days. Edinburgh is only one stop on a very busy film festival schedule as Andi Engel, director of Artificial Eye, explains: "It's very near Venice and Toronto and, without wanting to run Edinburgh down, both are more important to go to."
Artificial Eye still have two films on show at Edinburgh, but some distributors do question the value of screening their films there. "It's not really important to us whether we have a film up there or not," one says. "The business has changed. We have to be much more commercially minded. Edinburgh is very much a film buff's festival, but that's no longer the line I can make my company work."
Cousins is aware of such attitudes, but feels there is still a place for a festival that takes film seriously. "We can't buy success. What we must do is use our ideas to show people that we are serious, that we are interested in film-making. It's a matter of us refining further our artistic credentials and I think we've made a real step forward in that area this year."
n Edinburgh Film Festival runs from 13-27 Aug. Details: 0131-229 2550
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