Film Scouts Diaries

How To Run a Film Festival: Interview with Ginny Atkinson

by Christine Harris-Smyth
Special to Film Scouts
Ginny Atkinson is the producer of the Drambuie Edinburgh Film Festival. A team of more than 100 staff (many of whom are volunteers) help run the show. Along with director Mark Cousins, Atkinson is ultimately responsible for the financial and critical success of the festival.

FS: Ginny, what does the producer of a film festival do?

GA: Money and management. You have to get the money or at least maintain the sources that exist - which means applying to funding bodies like the Scottish Film Council and the City of Edinburgh Council, and looking into sponsorship. A lot of it is maintenance of existing relationships and looking for new ones.

FS: This is your second year producing DEFF. How has the festival changed in that time?

GA: Well when Mark Cousins (the festival director) and I took over, it was the first time we'd had joint chief executives. it is inevitably different because it meant the director was free to have creative vision without having to worry about being a chief executive on his own. I worry about the money and the management.

FS: How much has DEFF grown under your joint management?

GA: There's two ways of measuring it - profile and reputation, and the actual turnover which has increased from just over 450,000 (pounds) two years ago to just under 600,000 (pounds) this year. Basically we break even, there's no question of profit, hopefully not of loss either.
The profile has increased greatly because people think Mark is doing a very good job as director. The number of films, or film programmes, has increased by about 100 since 1994. Partly because with the 50th anniversary we wanted to cram in as much as possible including the special events like the 1947 retrospective. If you can get films for that, you don't turn them down. We create the slots to take the films. The same goes for Great Moments in Documentary History. That is a precious section of the festival.

FS: What about the importance of DEFF in relation to the British and Scottish film industry?

GA: Well there's always a fickle rivalry between the British film festivals - mostly between us and London (although there's been quite a lot of competition with Cambridge this year). We want premieres and we snaffled quite a few which Cambridge wanted, the same happens with London and DEFF. Filmmakers are advised if they go with us they won't get into London. It's up to them to make the choice.
I think people like London because it has the metropolitan mentality. The press - and the public - only have to get out of bed but lots of people also like coming to Edinburgh.
One thing we do in Edinburgh that is very important to the industry is a sidebar event - New British Expo (NBX). We have a unique showcase for British film that doesn't happen anywhere else in the world. It isn't part of the programme, it is a marketplace running alongside the festival. No other British festival does that.

FS: One thing that strikes me about DEFF is the ease of access to filmmakers. Is this a policy?

GA: The thing that has always been distinctive about Edinburgh, probably starting in the 60s, was that it has always been enquiring about film. It doesn't just stick up movies on the screen and say "everybody watch that and have a nice time." We always examine the nature of film and to do that it is very important that we have the filmmakers here.
In fact Edinburgh invented the retrospective. I think the first serious one was a retrospective of Sam Fuller in 1964 which he attended. We do like bringing filmmakers over and making them accessible. The other thing that comes out of that is juxtaposition. You meet people and we often have extraordinary people hanging around in the bar - it's almost iconoclastic. That's what is exciting. People come because we're friendly and that snowballs.

FS: And how did the Scene by Scene concept come about?

GA: We had masterclasses and in 1993 Thelma Schoonmaker Powell was talking about her work on Raging Bull. Because she's an editor, she needed to show us edits and that meant pictures on a screen. Scene by Scene is simply illustrated masterclass. It makes sense, if someone is talking about scenes in their movies that are significant, for the audience to see them.

FS: What is the future for DEFF?

GA: One of the things that is good about Edinburgh is that you never really know what is going to happen. A lot of it depends on the director. I mean I could be here for ten years and we could have three different directors and three very different fingerprints.
We have had our ups and downs and I would like to see the festival in a position of more substantial stability so that we could do things like pay for more people to come. Filmmakers still have to pay their own way apart from invited guests who do Scene by Scenes and things like that. Obviously distributors help out with big films and stars but we really aren't very well off compared to the sort of subsidy that Cannes and other state subsidised festivals get. It would be good for our profile to reach a point where we are considered to be a cultural and economic asset. Then we could raise more money to make it bigger and more secure.

FS: Finally, Sean Connery is the patron of DEFF. Is he any more than a figurehead?

GA: When Murray Grigor (former festival director and friend of Connery) asked him to become our patron, Sean more or less said "Yes, if I don't have to do very much." Not because he didn't want to but because he's a busy man. Also, he takes things quite seriously when he's involved with them would feel very bad if he wasn't able to do things we ask. What he does do is very good and we're happy to have his name on the letterhead. He knows people like Steven Spielberg and he will write to them for us. He has things like Frances Ford Coppola's telephone number which are actually hard to come by. He's very supportive of us in that sense. I think he came this year because he had a film that he could attach himself to - and he thinks that is important.

FS: And it is the 50th anniversary and he's God (in Edinburgh).

GA: Yes, it was particularly apt for the anniversary and he is God - he's Zeus (and he was born just up the road from The Filmhouse).

Back to Edinburgh Film Festival 1996

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