All change at EIFF as artistic director Mark Adams steps down

After five years, Mark Adams steps down from his role as artistic director of Edinburgh International Film Festival. It’s an opportunity for a fresh start for a festival that’s in need of reinvention

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 29 Nov 2019
  • Mark Adams

It’s been announced today that Mark Adams is stepping down from his role as Artistic Director of Edinburgh International Film Festival after five years at the helm. “I have decided it is time to move on and look to new and exciting opportunities,” said Adams this morning.

In his outgoing statement, Adams talks of “the growth and development of EIFF over the last five festivals” and how he has been “instrumental in re-establishing its international profile” but, in truth, his tenure has been characterised by steady stewardship rather than inventive or inspired programming.

Adams’ chief achievement appears to be in the growth of EIFF’s ticket sales; it was reported that the overall admissions to EIFF increased to 70,000 in 2019. On the ground, however, the festival is missing much of the sparkiness that once made it among the best film events in the country.

Adams' assertion that he has re-established EIFF's international profile also seems dubious given the paucity of world-renowned filmmakers visiting the festival during his time in charge. Compare this year's programme to one from ten years ago and the difference couldn't be starker. In 2009, Shane Meadows, Andrea Arnold, David Mackenzie, Darren Aronofsky, Bill Forsyth, Joe Dante and Roger Corman were just a few of the world-class filmmakers in attendance. A decade later, Danny Boyle and Nick Broomfield are the only directors from this year's crop of attending talent who could claim to be of similar renown.

One of the few demonstrable changes Adams brought about during his tenure was the introduction of a People’s Premiere, essentially a red carpet gala at bargain-basement prices (only £5). It’s a lovely idea, but when films screening in the People’s Gala are also of bargain-basement quality (this year it was the lamentable Balance, Not Symmetry) then it feels like the people are getting short-changed.

This isn’t the only case of Adams padding out the gala slots with mediocre movies, with titles like limp synchronised swimming comedy Swiming with Men, hopeless Ealing remake Whisky Galore! and listless biopic Mrs. Lowry & Son among EIFF’s more recent stinkers that should have been buried deep in the programme rather than given the full red carpet treatment (if even programmed at all). Another regrettable step backwards during Adams' time in charge is the scrapping of the once venerable EIFF catalogue.

To be fair to the outgoing director, EIFF occupies a tricky position on the UK's festival calendar. Over the last decade, it appears that UK distributors have tended to favour London Film Festival, which takes place in October, as the launching ground for their films; as the LFF programme overflows with riches each year, so EIFF’s choice of quality arthouse titles has shrunk. However, when distributors do opt to launch their film in the summer at Edinburgh, they often make a big splash.

Among the highlights of Adams’ five festivals have been 2017 opener God’s Own Country, 2015 Michael Powell Award-winner 45 Years and Pawel Pawlikowski’s Oscar-winner Cold War, which had its UK premiere at EIFF in 2018. And just this year, Mark Jenkin’s Bait and Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir kicked off lively cinema runs off the back of UK premieres at EIFF.

The delivery of next year’s edition will be overseen by Rod White, the current Director of Programming at Filmhouse and the Belmont in Aberdeen. As a caretaker director, you could hardly hope for a safer pair of hands. It will be interesting, however, to see who will fill the artistic director role permanently. Whoever it is, they’ll need to have energy to burn and ambitious ideas on how to tackle EIFF's awkward placement on the global film calendar.

This much-loved festival has been treading water for too long – it desperately needs a shot of adrenaline.