The Whistler Film Festival (WFF) has come a long way from its humble one-screen beginnings in 2001, and if the past dozen years are any indication, it’s poised to take the next step in becoming one of Canada’s — and the world’s — leading showcases for the industry.
Co-founded by university friends Kasi Lubin and Shauna Hardy Mishaw, whose apartment served as home base for festival operations early on, the pair wanted to improve on what they saw as a dearth in cinematic offerings in the community.
“I’m most proud of the fact that we’ve created something from nothing, it was a spark of an idea. At that time, we were getting one movie a week (in Whistler) so the idea of culture was very limited,” said Hardy Mishaw, the WFF’s executive director. “Being able to enhance Whistler’s cultural experience through film really was something that was motivating to me.”
As the event continued to develop over the years, Hardy Mishaw realized that Whistler was uniquely positioned to take full advantage of two of the biggest filmmaking markets in the world, conveniently located “down the road,” according to Hardy Mishaw.
“What we really recognized was that Vancouver has a $1.2 billion film and television business and a $3 billion digital media business that includes animation and visual effects … and we have a very close connection to Los Angeles, so it’s natural that Whistler could be a film centre,” she said.
Industry vets are starting to take notice of Whistler’s prime position in the market as well, with Hollywood tastemakers Variety magazine choosing WFF as one of just 30 festivals to partner with across the globe.
“I look at it as a place where Variety can do great industry events, we can have great industry leaders and we can host them … in a setting where we know the festival is professional, the physical setting is beautiful and it’s pretty convenient to L.A., so we’ll be trying to work and help Whistler develop and if it doesn’t, we’ll opportunistically put our tent up somewhere else,” said Variety’s executive editor Steven Gaydos.
In another vote of confidence for the WFF, the magazine decided to host its lauded 10 Screenwriters to Watch showcase in Whistler this year for the first time, a must-attend for film executives looking for the silver screen’s hottest new scribes.
“The industry pays a lot of attention to see who the new screenwriters or directors or actors are that Variety says to keep an eye on. In year one of that initiative in Whistler, I think that’s kind of a game-changer potentially,” said Gaydos.
Festival organizers further primed Whistler for success by positioning it just ahead of Hollywood’s yearly award season, giving filmmakers one last chance for Oscar consideration before the nomination period begins on Jan. 3.
“Based on the calendar, it’s really in the heart of award season with people really jockeying for position to have their films seen and paid attention to for the Oscars and the Golden Globes,” said Gaydos.
Furthering its reputation as a leading industry summit, the fest will also introduce the China-Canada Gateway for Film Script Competition this year, which sees 12 Canuck writer-producer teams vying for up to $15 million in project financing from leading Chinese film studios.
“The China-Canada Gateway for Film is unprecedented for this continent, or I would say the world,” said Hardy Mishaw. “We have two of the most influential people that control the China film industry coming to Canada for the first time, to come to Whistler because of what we’re doing.”
This means that, going forward, the festival could serve not only as a meeting point for leaders in the Canadian and American film industries, but also for the much larger Asian market, one that Western studios are fighting hand-over-fist to gain access to.
“The Canadian industry, the Asian industry, the Hollywood industry, we love the idea that Whistler could become a meeting point for all these important industry people and we believe that its going to develop into something that will have a positive business result for us,” said Gaydos from his home in Los Angeles.
But even with Hollywood and Beijing taking notice, the WFF still has a few hurdles to overcome before it can be considered alongside some of the world’s more iconic film showcases like Cannes, Sundance and Toronto.
“Everyone wants to come here, we have a reputation of being a filmmaker friendly fest, but what I’m encountering is lousy screening facilities,” said WFF’s new programming director and longtime film and TV executive, Paul Gratton last month.
Hardy Mishaw launched the Rainbow Theatre program in 2009, in the hopes of securing the estimated $2.67 million to upgrade the screening facility in order to bring it up to speed with other digital-ready theatres that are standard for major festivals.
In September Tourism Whistler, who holds the lease to the Rainbow Theatre, asked for the full funding to be secured in advance before the capital project could begin. The municipality also required all of the financing to be in place before they would release $340,000 in approved funds for this year, meaning no major renovations took place in time for this week’s event.
“I need more screens that are capable of showing digital. This festival cannot go to the next level unless that occurs,” said Gratton. “Listen, I’m not from here, I know there’s a lot of local politics, I’m just telling you that if you want to get the big movies with the big celebrities and the big premieres, you can’t have a famous director come to town and look at a temporary screening facility at the conference centre and have a meltdown happen, you just can’t … We are on the cusp, in my opinion after 12 years, of becoming a major international film festival player.”
Hardy Mishaw sees the potential Rainbow Theatre upgrades as not only benefiting the festival in the future, but the community at large by providing a year-round venue for cultural programming.
“This theatre not only enables us to ensure that we can take the festival to the next level, but it enables us to be in the heart of the Village all-year round with programming not only for film screenings but for culture, and that will also support tourism,” she said.
Most renowned international film festivals have their own screening houses, think Cannes’ Palais or Toronto’s Lightbox Theatre, that show films year round.
The Whistler Film Festival, which kicked off Wednesday (Nov. 28) with its opening gala and two screenings, runs until Sunday (Dec. 2).
Tickets are available at the box office in the kiosk located directly in front of the Whistler Conference Centre or online at www.whistlerfilmfestival.com.