The Whistler Film Festival is back with a hybrid offering that includes online and in-theater screenings, alongside various talent programs, masterclasses, workshops and its Content Summit. The fest will kick off opening night with the Canadian premiere of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter,” starring Olivia Colman, Ed Harris and Dakota Johnson.

This year, the festival has received more than 1,550 submissions from all over the world.

From Dec. 1-31, national online audiences can enjoy 31 features and 35 shorts. WFF will share net proceeds of its online offerings on a 50/50 basis directly with the filmmakers or Canadian rights holders.

From Dec. 1-5 audiences in Whistler, B.C. will share in the big-screen experience with 31 features, including 15 premieres and six short film programs bowing exclusively in-theater.

Special presentations include Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter,” about an outsider seeking redemption, starring Oscar Isaac and Tiffany Haddish, as well as Paolo Sorrentino’s coming-of-age story “The Hand of God,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Venice Film Festival. Jane Campion is also back with her first film in 12 years, “The Power of the Dog,” a Western featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst.

What’s particularly remarkable is that this year’s documentary film submissions has tripled, allowing the fest to program some unusual pics including the world premiere of Rebecca Campbell’s “The Secret Society,” a film that looks at Canadian laws that constrain women’s rights to purchase third-party eggs for reproductive purposes; Naddine Madell’s “A Wicked Eden,” an exposé of the world of online female domination; co-directors Morris Chapdelaine and Bob Christie’s “Pat Rocco Dared,” an affectionate tribute to L.A.-based gay filmmaking pioneer Pat Rocco, who was responsible for the first commercial public screenings of gay films; and Robin Hauser’s “$AVVY,” an eye-opening entreaty for women to develop their own financial independence.

As much as the festival has tried to re-create the Whistler experience with its online proxy last year, it is not a substitute for the experience of attending in-person Q&As, panels and screenings.

“The ambiance of a ski resort town early in the snow season, combined with a celebration of a return to cinemagoing should create that special magic alchemy and excitement for which the Canadian festival circuit has been pining for,” says the fest’s long-time programmer Paul Gratton. “With 50% of our feature films this year having been directed by women — long sought, but never before attained —we think much of the excitement this year will be focused on female creators. Which is why we thought Maggie Gyllenhaal’s ‘The Lost Daughter’ sets the perfect tone to launch the festival: a feisty first-time feature with a true indie spirit that isn’t afraid to take chances in its storytelling.”

The power of this hybrid format, however, means that films will be more accessible to audiences than ever before, wherever they might be.

The festival was particularly determined that all 15 of its Borsos Competition films would be available online.

“That is the core of our programming mission, and we think it is important to share our best Canadian features online and with a national Canadian audience,” Gratton says. “It was therefore essential to secure those rights going in, just in case we had to cancel in-theater screenings on short notice, as was the case last year.”

Arranging for online screenings means having to navigate piracy concerns, internal policies, concerns over release windows and other issues.

In all, 31 features will be presented online, and nine features will be exclusive to in-theater screenings.

The fest ran a study that confirmed that although audiences appreciated the ease of accessibility of online programming, they felt that being unable to be in a room together and forge organic connections was a barrier to networking and sales opportunities.

“Much more time for casual conversation and just being with other filmmakers and industry is baked into our 2021 event,” says the fest’s exec director Angela Heck. “There are benefits to both online and in-person and we’ve really expanded our horizons to be as welcoming as possible in both spaces.”

Heck believes that the festival is well-positioned to take advantage of the best of both worlds.

“We’re a nimble, intimate festival with a super energetic and knowledgeable team behind it,” Heck says. “Our adventurous spirit carries us through. There’s always the view of the mountains out the window to remind you that there are a lot of different challenges out there. A hybrid festival is just a small one
in comparison.”

Closing the festival will be the North American premiere of Andreas Schmied’s biopic “Chasing the Line,” which chronicles 1976 Olympic gold medal ski racer Franz Klammer.

“It’s a particularly inspiring year,” says Heck. “I’m most excited by the energy, truth and creativity.”