The first Cockatoo Island Film Festival will have masterclasses with Peter Weir and Jane Campion, a splashy opening with the American movie The Master and a lively program of concerts later this month.
But the organisers have scaled back ambitious plans for a Sundance Film Festival-style competition because of a shortage of new Australian films that had not already been released this year.
Instead of a planned 48 films selected for Australian narrative, Australian documentary, world narrative and world documentary competitions, the Sydney Harbour island festival will have 25 films competing for a best feature film and jury prizes.
"It just made more sense to have one competition," said the festival's co-creative director, Stavros Kazantzidis. "That was our vision – the reality of the situation was different and we adapted accordingly."
But he remains bullish about the "world-class standard" of films that will screen both in and out of competition from October 24 to 28.
The filmmaker couple behind the Hunter Valley's Dungog Film Festival, Kazantzidis and Allanah Zitserman, are styling the festival as a Sydney "event" they hope will attract more than 40,000 visitors to multiple activities over five days.
"It's very much about creating an entire experience for people," said Zitserman. "That's what we're delivering here: 'get out of your ordinary world and transport yourself to Cockatoo Island for an extraordinary experience'."
More than $800,000 will be spent to convert five sites into cinemas – four indoors, one outdoors using wireless headphones – at the latest event at the emerging arts precinct.
The original plan was to screen 200 Australian and 100 foreign films over five days. Kazantzidis said the festival would now screen 70 feature films – five Australian so far – and 130 shorts.
For the first festival, Australian films have proven more difficult than expected to secure.
"A lot of them have been in Sydney [Film Festival] and have been released," he said. "I think that will take a little time to address in terms of the way that Australians think about their release schedules."
The competition is aimed at drawing attention to emerging filmmakers by focusing on first and second films.
"That gives it a very edgy feel – it's very contemporary, very now," Kazantzidis said. "We've really made an effort to select films from all corners of the globe so it's a fantastic cross-section of what's happening in cinema now."
Among the 15 narrative features in competition is Australian director Tony Krawitz's Dead Europe, his adaptation of a Christos Tsiolkos novel about a photographer, played by Ewan Leslie, confronting dark family secrets in Greece. It screened in competition at this year's Sydney Film Festival.
Other selections include a thriller about a wheelbarrow porter with big dreams from Paraguay (7 Boxes), a coming-of-age tale from Japan (About the Pink Sky), the directing debut of celebrated Austrian actor Karl Markovics (Breathing), an odyssey about a father searching rural Sao Paulo for his missing teenage son (Father's Chair), a Croatian melodrama about two seniors who fall in love (Night Boats) and a Russian war film about a man wrongly accused of collaborating in 1942 (In the Fog).
The documentary competition include films on the Arab Spring (1/2 Revolution from Egypt/Denmark), the life of writer Ian Fleming (Everything or Nothing: The Untold Story of 007 from the United Kingdom), single motherhood over 40 (First Comes Love from the US), an Australian immigrant's take on the American dream (Peter Hegedus's My America), the impact of the Japanese tsunami (No Man's Zone from Japan), metro systems around the world (Trains of Thought from Austria) and the world's most famous octopus (Paul the Psychic Octopus from the US/Germany).
Opening the festival is Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, an acclaimed drama starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a cult leader who has been likened to Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.
Out of competition, the program includes Tim Burton's 3D animated Frankenweenie, the Elijah Wood thriller Maniac and the Australian sci-fi thriller Crawlspace.
Other attractions include concerts by Matt Corby and Arrested Development at a venue that can fit more than 3000 people, pop-up restaurants, a nightclub that will stay open until 3am and a classic yacht race on a picnic day.
In a larger than originally planned program of seminars, conversations and masterclasses, director Peter Weir and composer Burkhard Dallwitz will discuss their collaboration on The Truman Show and The Way Back.