Fest Traveler: Whistler Film Festival

A year ago, the international spotlight shone on Whistler as the 2010 Vancouver Olympics captured the imaginations of sports fans, and organizers of the Whistler Film Festival hope they can evoke a similar passion with festgoers as they work to redefine one of the top ski resort towns as a destination for filmmakers.

Co-founder Shauna Hardy Mishaw is confident that the boutique fest, in its 11th year, is in the midst of a major growth spurt as it solidifies a relationship with the Canadian Film Institute, finalizes renovation plans for a local movie house, and adopts a modus operandi to amplify its presence in the festival firmament.

“We want to build on our current position as one of the most important festivals in Canada, and as a place of importance for the industry,” Mishaw says. “Whistler is extremely well-located for greatness.”

With several Canadian fests already capturing the bulk of the attention, particularly in Toronto, Whister is angling a different strategy. The organizers play up the fest’s convenience for industry players, with hotels and theatres within short walking distance, which puts the focus on the fest rather than the bustle.

“People get here and they can connect with the people they want to connect with,” she says. “It is an inclusive festival. It’s very friendly; it’s very intimate.”

The pedestrian village is nestled in the mountains of British Columbia, a two-hour drive from Vancouver and a relatively short flight from Los Angeles. Timed to coincide with the launch of ski season, the fest initially aimed to draw more traffic to Whistler when room rates were cheap and vacationer traffic was manageable. But as the event built its name, more industryites have noted that it begins on the first weekend in December, which could provide a key launching pad in the final runup to awards season.

Mishaw says golden statues were the farthest things from her mind when she created the fest with a university friend in 2001, and ran the operation out of her condo.

“It was mayhem,” she recalls.

“I had the box office lines ringing out of my house. I’d just started dating my now-husband, and he had to answer the phone.”

Over time, the festival beefed up its skeleton staff by and formed a board to oversee the operations. Former Toronto Film Fest programmer Stacey Donen joined the ranks in 2009 as artistic director, and with him brought a new level of attention.

“We’ve started to get a reputation as a filmmakers festival,” Donen says. “That’s something that’s really important to me, to treat the filmmakers well and respect their work.”

This year, the fest will award C$50,000 ($48,832) in prizes and commissions, with six juried competitions and one audience award. The top prizes are the $15,000 Borsis Competition for Canadian Feature, named after helmer Phillip Borsos, and the $10,000 New Voices award for first- or second-time directors. Organizers estimate about 10,000 people, and 5,000 industry players, will attend the programming and conferences.

Mishaw hopes Whistler’s reputation continues to build with filmmakers as stories circulate about the positive experiences at past fests. One of her favorites is the tale of Canuck helmer Bruce MacDonald, who she says was so inspired during his visit that he’s now working on a project set in the snowy getaway.

“We’ve had deals done on chairlifts and in hot tubs, or on a stroll at dinner parties,” she says. “The culture and environment of Whistler is extremely inspiring, and that’s why people connect.”

This year, organizers are planning events to attract fresh attention, including an outdoor screening of a Pixar shorts program to celebrate the animation studio’s 25th anniversary. The fest will also recognize Patton Oswalt with a Spotlight Award for supporting performance in “Young Adult,” helmer Jennifer Yuh Nelson with an animation award, Andy Serkis with the Variety Tech Pioneer award and Canuck actor Jay Baruchel for screenwriting.

Next year organizers intend to renovate a defunct local movie theater into a state-of-the-art facility with about 275 seats, and make it the home base for year-round programs.

Mishaw also hopes to establish an institute that will nurture developing projects to their full potential, as part of a relationship with the Canadian Film Centre.

“The idea is always being at the forefront of our game,” she says. “We have lofty expectations, and we’ll see where we land.”

HIGHLIGHTS

Special Screenings
• “A Dangerous Method” (David Cronenberg)
• “The Sorcerer and the White Snake” (Tony Siu-tung Ching)
• “The Lady” (Luc Besson)

Canadian film competition
• “388 Arletta Avenue” (Randall Cole)
• “Cafe de Flore” (Jean-Marc Vallee)
• “Doppelganger Paul (Or a Film About How Much I Hate Myself)” (Dylan Akio Smith, Kris Elgstrand)
• “Keyhole” (Guy Maddin)
• “Marilyn” (Christopher Petry)
• “Monsieur Lazhar” (Philippe Falardeau)

New Voices
• “Edwin Boyd” (Nathan Morlando)
• “In the Family” (Patrick Wang)
• “Laurentia” (Mathieu Denis, Simon Lavoie)
• “Machete Language” (Kyzza Terrazas)
• “The Invader” (Nicolas Provost)

Documentary
•”Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey” (Constance Marks, Philip Shane)
• “Kivalina” (Ben Addelman)
• “Rasta: A Soul’s Journey” (Stuart Samuels)
• Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad and the Politician” (Tamer Ezzat, Ayten Amin, Amr Salama)
• “The Lady” Luc Besson
• “The Vanishing Spring Light” (Xun Yu)

FEST TRAVELER: WHISTLER FILM FESTIVAL
Hollywood altitude | Warmest welcomes | Laurels rest here | Capture suits Serkis just fine

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