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Filmmakers’ festival

Nicole Fitzgeraldgives us the scoop on what's rolling at the Whistler Film Festival.

By Nicole Fitzgerald

The Whistler Film Festival is more than just an armchair experience of traveling through amazing independent films. The festival has become a conduit for both emerging and established filmmakers to connect with leading industry professionals, to learn the secrets of the trade and to make the contacts to move a script to screen.

While the Whistler community enjoys the screenings, filmmakers now trekking in from all over Western Canada gather for the networking, the more than $32,000 in awards given and the workshops led by the industry’s best.

There is no red velvet barricade. Instead the festival acts more as an industry backdoor with an open-for-business sign — a cinematic hub where filmmakers find inspiration and the means to project vision into reel-ity.

Sometimes the inspiration comes from sitting in front of a screen, other times from being in front of an industry panel.

“We aspire to celebrate and promote the filmmaking community in Canada, but within a wider international context,” said festival programmer Bill Evans. “We focus on new Canadian films with the Borsos Award (which showcases) a wide spectrum of film that represents current trends in the international filmmaking community.”

International distribution and sales is one of the hot topics at the festival’s Whistler Filmmaker Forum, a four-day industry event, which provides Canadian producers with the tools necessary to compete in the national and international film marketplace. Forum participants have the opportunity to forge strategic partnerships with broadcasters, sales agents and distributors in seminars, networking meetings, workshops and pitch forums exploring all aspects of the industry beast, from script writing and directing to production funding and distribution.

“It’s not geared towards amateurs,” said festival director Shauna Hardy Mishaw. “The whole goal of what we are doing with the forum is to facilitate a very interactive and positive business environment for filmmakers. We want to see them make deals.”

Sometimes networking takes place in social soirées, other times in a formal setting where the creative meets the practical. A new addition this year, DOC Talk hosts “speed dating” between producers and networks over the weekend. Pitch Fest West is the granddaddy of them all, showcasing 10 documentary filmmakers who will pitch their projects to a roundtable of Canadian and International broadcasters. Industry heavyweights joining the roundtable include representatives from CBC, Sundance Channel, Life Network, National Geographic Channel and PBS, just to name a few.

The forum lineup is the equivalent of a feature-film, reducing this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival networking forum to little more than a preview trailer.

Great things come in small packages. Hardy Mishaw aims to keep the Whistler Film Festival the intimate gathering the mountain town inspired, so filmmakers can continue to bump into contacts along the Village Stroll in between screenings rather than get lost in the gridlocked rush hour of film festivals such as the Toronto International Film Festival, where filmmakers fall through the red carpet cracks.

Echoes of a festival contact

0pt; font-family:Times'>Maybe that is why James Upton, despite attending the Vancouver International Film Festival for three years, didn’t land his first big break until he headed north of the city lights to a town more famous for its great outdoors than its culture.

While the festival sparks connections, how a filmmaker/producer follows through and what they bring to that connection determines whether that initial meeting is going to spread like wildfire or fade to black with the festival’s closing credits.

Talking with Upton, co-founder of Talelight Films, the level of professionalism and organization for his young production company was clearly evident; He explained the company’s mandate and current and future film projects with the polish of a press release.

It was this cross every “t” and dot every “i" dedication that closed a film deal this year. However, even with all the talent and dedication in the world, conquering the film industry beast requires more than a quality product, it requires contacts with the right people and being in the right place at the right time.

And thanks to the Whistler Film Festival, all three components — talent, contact and timing — came together, resulting in Talelight Films landing a three-feature-film contract with Montreal-based Equinoxe Films.

“I thought it would be a fantastic opportunity to meet like-minded filmmakers, sales agents and distributors,” Upton said of coming to the Whistler Film Festival last year. “What an incredible environment to host a festival where independent film can be celebrated in a relaxed, but professional atmosphere.”

Upton approached Michael Mosca, senior vice-president of Equinoxe Films, after attending one of the filmmaker forum discussion panels last year. Business cards were exchanged and Upton arranged a meeting the next day to discuss his company and a short film Talelight was currently in post-production with called Echoes of an Epic .

Mosca was impressed with the film’s backing as well as Talelight’s well-stocked script library, penned by Upton’s business partner Jeff Richards. And a month and a half later, Mosca flew from Montreal to Vancouver to close the three-film deal.

Richards’s Notes From A Life, a psychological drama about a woman forced to confront her father as both man and artist, is the first of three scripts to be produced for theatrical distribution, home entertainment and television.

Past Equinoxe Film box office successes included Un dimanche a Kigali, The Passion of the Christ , My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Mambo Italiano .

“I think these trade forums are extremely valuable,” Upton said. “I would encourage anyone who is considering attending to be very proactive when it comes to initiating relationships with people that you would like to work with in the future, but also to be well prepared once you make that initial contact.”

Echoes of an Epic screens at the Whistler Film Festival prior to Sarah Polley’s Away From Her on Saturday, Dec. 2 at 9:30 p.m. at Village 8 Cinemas.

Echoes of an Epic , a two-time Leo-nominated film, follows the story of an artist who becomes all consumed in his obsession with art, which both exalts and destroys him — something all filmmakers can attest to as they invest blood, sweat and tears. That was true in the literal sense for filmmaker Ken Hegan, whose dedication to his craft led to him taking one for the team when a hockey player slammed into the makeshift camera rigging with Hegan behind the lens. But all was well; the camera was left unharmed.

Commissioning filmmakers to chop up credit cards

Voice of Treason producer Ken Hegan stands in the kitchen of his Vancouver home looking at an envelope stamped with an automatic approved credit rating for a new credit card. The application form spells film funding, but his wife swore divorce if he funded a film off a credit card again. He already maxed out his credit when she agreed to let him write about their wedding, enabling the crafty freelance journalist to orchestrate a $32,000 wedding without spending a dime.

So when Hegan sat down to watch his friend Tracy Smith’s Whistler Stories debut at the Whistler Film Festival last year, he saw more than a filmmaking opportunity presented to him. The wily scribbler saw a means to expand the $5,000 Whistler Stories filmmaking grant to a $50,000 in-value production while at the same time ensuring a happy marriage for years to come.

Whistler Stories awards four independent B.C. filmmakers grant money to produce a five-minute short film every year, leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. With media attention turning to the resort in 2010, festival organizers wanted to ensure the B.C. community had a voice in contributing the stories they wanted shared around the world. The funding also provided an opportunity for filmmakers to take their talents to the next level.

Co-writer John Meadow’s idea to produce a film based on the theme that “every day is the gold medal game” was what first spurred Voice of Treason’s Heart of Whistler . However, the opportunity to produce a calling-card that would show to more than 1,400 people at the festival’s opening gala lent fuel to the creative fires already stoked by coffee and takeout pizza.

“Short films are not money makers; they are career builders,” Hegan said. “It gives us a chance to flex our short story-telling muscles and have some cash. The Whistler Film Festival’s generosity really made this happen.”

The festival presented the opportunity and Hegan ran with it, or rather rollerbladed with camera in hand barreling down the Valley Trail. However, the Heart of Whistler will beat long after the festival’s rolling credits. Hegan said he owes it to all those involved to ensure the film is shown to as many people as possible. The Internet, cell phone downloads and more festival screenings are in the works. Hegan has already received an invite to submit the film to the HBO-sponsored comedy film festival in Aspen.

Hegan has long had his eye on a career as a feature film director, and short films are door openers to the vocation. Based on two other short films on his resume, Hegan was recently recruited to write and produce four scripts for a new documentary for the TVtropolis network.

Even with $5,000 in hand, the indie spirit burned bright for the freelance journalist whose works have been seen in Rolling Stone, GQ and the Globe and Mail. He transformed the set budget into a $50,000 production, drawing on his promotional freelance writing talents exercised in his wedding, as well as industry friends volunteering their time, businesses lending equipment and supplies, and the generosity of the Whistler community.

“Our film is ambitious,” Hagen said. “There are so many action scenes. We have a stunt coordinator. We wanted a helicopter to show off Whistler and all its summer glory with big, epic Braveheart -inspiring music.”

From a half a million dollar crane to a makeshift ice dolly fashioned from plywood planks with five pucks nailed to the bottom; from a local bar hockey team to a professional stunt person; from cameras operators propelled on rollerblades to directors riding in a helicopter; the independent filmmaking community is alive and well in The Heart of Whistler — and most importantly, well fed thanks to Boston Pizza in Whistler.

The fast and fun comedic tale of a bored Whistler banquet server thrust into a life-or-death race to deliver a frozen heart to a waiting transplant patient will come to life at the opening gala Thursday, Nov. 30 at 8 p.m. at the Telus Conference Centre.

Many Whistlerites will see aspects of themselves or the people they know as they follow the main character, a top-ranking Aussie athlete moonlighting in the food and beverage industry, who finds her inner Olympic spirit even in the most ringed out of circumstances.

“It’s sort of Run Lola Run meets Raiders of the Lost Arc ,” Hagen explained. “She is dubious about the Olympics, but over the course of the journey she has all these obstacles and she finds her inner Olympian.”

Mind you, she has to navigate her way through mocked Olympic sports to get there, but she does so just the same, just as Hegan hopes the audience will as well.

The Whistler Stories filmmaker outreach program isn’t the festival program fattening filmmakers’ wallets in an effort to encourage Canadian filmmaking. The festival awards more than $34,000 in cash/prizes, including the top accolade, the $15,000 Best New Canadian Feature Film Borsos award and a $5,000 development prize for the Best Script Award.

“People are coming from farther and farther a field,” Evans said. “We are offering something that is not being offered anywhere else — or at least not in Western Canada.”

“We are fun and business,” Hardy explained. “The festival is the fun part of it where we really have the opportunity to celebrate film showing some of the best films in the world… The forums are about business; getting the film industry here. It’s always leading edge. It’s always focused on evolution. We’ve always tried to be at the forefront…. We’ve obviously had some really challenging times, but we’ve got our feet on solid ground now. We’ve got a reputation in the industry. The buzz is out there. People are psyched.”

For a festival schedule, visit