Edinburgh International Film Festival - A very Scottish kind of Sundance

The Edinburgh Film Festival is now billed as an opportunity for discovery. Geoffrey Macnab takes the temperature

There were long queues at the Edinburgh International Film Festival box-office when tickets for the first British screening of Pixar's Toy Story 3 went on sale this month. Edinburgh, at 64 the longest continually running film festival in the world, is now being styled as "a festival of discovery" and "the Sundance of the North". It's the place where you come to see the best in raw, new British filmmaking talent and international arthouse cinema. The organisers boast that 82 of its 111 new feature films are of first- or second-time directors and that 22 are world premieres.

"It [Edinburgh] may not be A-list Hollywood superstars all the time. It may not be replicating the Cannes competition or the massive Oscar movies that you're going to get in Toronto. What we want is to get people excited about things they've never heard of," Edinburgh's Artistic Director Hannah McGill declares of the emphasis on "discovery." She says that many of the films in her selection won't secure UK distribution. Edinburgh thus provides "the only chance" for audiences to see films she characterises as "little gems."

Nonetheless, the chance of an early glimpse of the latest adventure of Buzz, Woody and the rest of Andy's toys provoked a mini box-office stampede.

Toy Story 3 wasn't a world premiere in Edinburgh. The film has already been launched in several countries prior to its UK release (after the end of the World Cup) next month. In other words, this is not a film that you will struggle to see outside the festival circuit. Its magnetic pull on audiences highlights the challenge that faces film festivals everywhere. In spite of the opportunities for "discovery" that Edinburgh and other events present, cinema-goers still cling to the familiar. They like stars, glamour, red-carpet events and, in Edinburgh at least, they especially like Pixar films. (WALL*E also screened at the festival two years ago.)

Another animated feature, Sylvain Chomet's The Illusionist, launched the festival last week. Based on a Jacques Tati script, this was a fitting opening film on many different levels, especially as it was largely set in late 1950s Edinburgh and portrayed the city with huge pathos and humour.

In theory, these are tough times for Edinburgh. Three-years'-worth of extra funding (worth £1.88m overall) from the UK Film Council is about to run out. Thanks to the economic downturn, commercial sponsorship is harder than ever to raise in its stead. There are so many other film festivals in the calendar and so few really memorable films made that programmers face ferocious competition for premieres. One programmer I met last week suggested, "there are 60 great films made every year and there are 2,000 festivals chasing them." If that really is the case, true "discoveries" are as easy to find as the proverbial needles in haystacks.

Festivals love to pay court to the industry but Edinburgh is arguably of only marginal interest to international distributors and sales agents, many of whom are feeling jaded after Cannes anyway. Outside its doughty patrons Sir Sean Connery (whose "80th year" was celebrated with a special screening of The Man Who Would Be King) and Tilda Swinton, it attracts relatively few big-name stars.

It's easy enough to list the obstacles looming in Edinburgh's face but the mood in the city has still been remarkably upbeat. Former Edinburgh Film Festival director Mark Cousins and the actress Tilda Swinton, who run the 8 Foundation together, have organised an event at which anyone interested can join them in a Laurel and Hardy-style dance. The idea is they will all recreate Stan and Ollie's little skit from Way Out West in Festival Square on Lothian Road tomorrow.

"Film festivals should not be seen as being in the service of the film industry," Cousins declares. "They should also be quizzical, sceptical and playful. They should have a relationship with the film industry like that of a wayward child or of a stroppy, brilliant teenager with his parents."

Hannah McGill shares at least some of Cousins's romanticism, albeit with several caveats but also realises that, for many of the film-makers Edinburgh is a launch-pad – they crave and need industry attention.

There have certainly been plenty of challenging new British films for audience members ready to take a leap into the unknown. Viv Fongenie's feature Ollie Kepler's Expanding Purple World, starring Edward Hogg, was a film about a schizophrenic young scientist trying to cope after the sudden death of his girlfriend. It is a claustrophobic and disturbing drama. Karl Golden's Pelican Blood was likewise a dark and brooding psychodrama, again with a live-wire central performance, this time from Harry Treadaway as a self-destructive bird-watching enthusiast.

It was instructive to watch Hawa Essuman's Kenya-set Soul Boy about a teenage boy desperate to save his father. It is set in Kibera, one of the biggest urban slums in Africa. It's the sheer exuberance of the storytelling that is so impressive. That exuberance hasn't always been in evidence in new British films in Edinburgh. However, it's worth remembering the circumstances in which these films were made. Toy Story 3 reportedly had a budget of $200m. Hattie Dalton's Third Star, the closing night gala in Edinburgh this weekend, cost all of £450,000. "It's all about there being a spark, a verve, a creative spirit," McGill says of her selection. "There are going to be rough edges... I am always very conscious of that."

From Duncan Jones's Moon last year to Anton Corbijn's Control in 2007, and Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, the festival has consistently championed the best in new British cinema. The challenge now is to convince festival audiences that these films are as worth seeing as Toy Story 3.

The Edinburgh International Film Festival ends this weekend with a gala screening of 'Third Star'

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