McLellan: Change to festival dates pays dividends

The Magic Flute was a major success. Picture: Ian Georgeson
The Magic Flute was a major success. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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A harder commercial edge, a schedule designed to suit customers and the value of ticket sales up by nearly a fifth; Fergus Linehan’s first Edinburgh International Festival as director has been a success and all the more so because increased popularity is not being confused with dumbing down.

The decision to bring the Festival three weeks forward to finish on the August Bank Holiday weekend has been desperately needed ever since the Fringe made the switch at the end of the 90s to match up with the English holiday 
season and it looks like it has paid dividends. Unfairly maybe, but until this year the last week of the International Festival has felt lost, like the last guests reluctant to leave at the end of a big party. Some great shows were still open as visitors packed up along with the London comedians and the temporary Fringe venues.

No more. Under the previous arrangements, two of the biggest shows, Lanark and The Magic Flute, would have been running when the Fringe had ended but instead they took their place at the head of a packed final week.

Plus there was a far greater chance to see them; Lanark played eight times and The Magic Flute was performed on four consecutive nights. Previously, three nights was the norm, but this year the EICC’s smash hits The Encounter had 12 performances and Ex-Machina ten. The star attraction, Antigone at the Kings with A-lister Juliette Binoche, ran for 13 nights plus a Saturday matinee.

Linehan will be able to point to the £3.8m his shows have taken as tangible evidence of success, a 19 per cent increase on last year, and then he’ll need no reminding that topping that next year won’t be easy, especially when set against the £11m cost of staging this year’s productions and the never-ending difficulty of securing public subsidy and private sponsorship.

According to this year’s Thundering Hooves II report into the future of the festivals, the combined income of all the official festivals last year was £36m of which £9m was from public funding. Given the last reliable figure for the wider economic benefit to the city was an estimated £261m in 2011, that’s a fair return for the investment.

It’s not unreasonable to speculate that in the last four years that figure might be up to just under £300m, and if so a return of about £30 for every public pound spent is an investor’s dream.

Meanwhile the Fringe marches on, spitting out big numbers along the way; 50,459 performances of 3314 shows in 313 venues shifting 2,298,090 tickets. That’s over five per cent more than last year, even with disruption to the main Bristo Square hub.

So if two million tickets are sold at £12, that’s ticket income of £24m, but Thundering Hooves II actually estimates that total Fringe ticket income is around the £36m mark. Again, that’s income, not profit and plenty of Fringe shows operate at a crushing loss.

The numbers confirm what we all know from the peace and quiet of the week after the festivals close – there are huge amounts of people and cash sloshing about in Edinburgh, without which there would be a £300m hole in the local economy. The size of these numbers should make Linehan’s well-aired argument for a better funding settlement easier to make, except making a successful plea for bigger arts subsidies is never straightforward, especially against a background of cuts in all Creative Scotland grants.

And there is little chance of public cash paying for the 1000-seater auditorium he said this week the city badly lacks.

Culture minister Fiona Hyslop is well-regarded in the arts community, but having handed £150,000 to the profit-making, lager-promoting T in the Park music festival she has just made it much more difficult to play hardball with world class events which struggle to wash their faces but bring a huge benefit to the wider economy.

But Hyslop is not going to get a bigger pot to spend, and nor should she when priorities like education need urgent attention.

Thundering Hooves II vaguely called for “new thinking and innovative solutions” but also suggested what it called “potential adaptations of wider Scottish and UK tax regimes” and here Hyslop can help find the answers.

The city doubles in size and visitors happily part with cash for shows they know little about. They’ll cough up for higher room charges than normal, pay premium train and air fares and spend even more when they get here.

If visitors on a three-night stay paid a total of a fiver in new levies to support the events they enjoy it could generate around £15m to cover public investment to make sure the festivals stay world class, not second tier as Linehan fears they might become.

And not one of them would notice.