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The Whistler Film Festival marks 20 years of movie magic

Reflecting on two decades of films, industry programming, and, of course, parties
(From left) Paul Gratton, director of programming for the Whistler Film Festival, writer/director Sophie Deraspe, and Shauna Hardy Mishaw, former executive director of the festival, pose for a photo at the 2019 festival. Photo by Eric Beckstead

Back in 2001, Shauna Hardy Mishaw answered a newspaper ad looking for someone to produce a national film series in Whistler. 

As part of the job, she (with help from local Kasi Lubin) selected 12 films from a list of pre-curated Canadian offerings, and programmed the opening film, including, most notably—and infamously—John Zaritsky’s Ski Bums

“It featured a cast of characters which, at the time, were all the friends we were skiing with,” Hardy Mishaw remembers. “They were the ‘ski bums.’” 

While the exact details of that night are still shrouded in a bit of mystery, Hardy Mishaw hints heavily at a wild and raucous event. 

“There were over 1,300 people involved,” adds Angela Heck, who was a publicist for that film, but is now the managing director of the Whistler Film Festival (WFF). “The energy in the room was electric. You can imagine if you get that many people together recognizing their friends and really wanting to have a big party—Whistler style—you don’t have to describe it in too much detail.” 

The enduring element of that night, though, was not the party, but the fact that it became the kick off to the first-ever Whistler Film Festival.

“It was this one moment where, honestly, everyone turned up,” Hardy Mishaw, WFF founder, development director, and former executive director, says. “It was crazy. It was a real spark for us. It marked this moment where we went, ‘I think we’re onto something.’” 

When the WFF kicked off on Dec. 1 this year, it officially marked the festival’s 20th anniversary. 

Of course, in 2020, it has been a festival like no other. While they were able to host a small number of premieres in theatre, the majority of this year’s 97 films—including 30 features and 67 shorts—have made their debut online. The festival is rolling out new films through Dec. 20, but people from across Canada will able to stream them from home until the end of the month. In this challenging year, they also decided to split half the proceeds with filmmakers or rights holders to the films. 

“It’s been interesting because we’re essentially a month-long festival at this point,” Heck says. “We’re also national. The audience is primarily from B.C. and the Lower Mainland, but we’re seeing a lot of pick up in Ontario and Quebec. It does take some time for that message to trickle out.”

This year might be unique, but WFF is no stranger to adapting to the changing times. Over the years, it’s increased its selection of Canadian films, showcased more and more female directors, and diversified its industry offerings with programs like the Indigenous Filmmaker Fellowship, and the Women in Focus series. 

A.W. Hopkins, whose film Indian Road Trip, premiered at the festival this year, went through both the Indigenous Filmmaker Fellowship program and the Screenwriters Lab to bring the production from a short script to a feature film. 

“It is 100 per cent spawned by Whistler,” Hopkins says of his film. “When I first got the notice, I didn’t know about the existence of the Indigenous Filmmaker Fellowship. The deadline was a week away and I needed a short film to enter. I had been writing high-concept stuff for the last couple years hoping to get attention, which I didn’t. I had this personal story kicking around in the back of my mind and that was Indian Road Trip. I had a 30-page script I cut down to 10 pages and I got into the fellowship. It was fantastic.” 

For Hardy Mishaw, who stepped down from her role as executive director earlier this year, the industry side of the festival—in particular, watching how it has helped bolster new talent and turn ideas into real films—has been the most fulfilling part of the last two decades of work. 

“That’s been one of the coolest parts for me as the founder and someone involved with this cultural enterprise for the past 20 years—that’s one of the proudest outcomes for me is being able to help support these diverse artists to tell their stories, and to provide a platform for them and resources for them and support and mentorship,” she says. 

Even in this strange year where industry meetings moved online, the festival supported 357 one-on-one business meetings, Hardy Mishaw says. 

However, the one aspect of the festival that can’t be replicated online is its intimate nature that so many say make it unique. Stories of chance meetings around the village that turned into fruitful relationships—or just memorable encounters—abound. 

Steven Gaydos, executive editor and senior VP of global content with Variety, has one such tale. 

“I have one special memory above all others that really made me feel great about Whistler,” he says. “I remember showing our film Road to Nowhere in December 2010, and Atom Egoyan, the Canadian director, genius, coming over and having a filmmaker chat with me. He really appreciated the film a lot. But suddenly I was talking to one of the world’s great filmmakers about our film. It was so organic. It was so natural. It just felt like the way the movie-making process is supposed to work. You make something, you show it to people who are smart and creative and have high standards, then you get to talk and share.” 

Immediately after that festival 10 years ago, Gaydos put on his Variety hat. 

“[I said,] ‘Wow, I wonder if we can connect Hollywood to this? Raise the profile a bit and make this a little more of a destination, a part of the awards season, a place where people can come and have fun and meet and you don’t have to fly across the country if you’re based in Hollywood, you don’t have to fly across the world. You fly up the coast,’” he says.

To that end, in 2011, Variety brought its Screenwriters to Watch program up to Whistler, honouring up-and-coming screenwriters, and kept coming back as part of the festival for seven years. 

“We brought some fun people,” Gaydos says. “Variety brought Rashida Jones and Jennifer Yuh Nelson, Melissa Leo. We brought Academy Award winners and great new talent … The majority of the people from big, big films in Hollywood and every single person we brought here—I’m telling you—made a point of writing us a note and saying, ‘This was so beautiful. I’m going back. I’m taking my family. I’m telling my friends.’ Ninety per cent of them have never been to Whistler.” 

In that way, he sees the festival as raising the profile of the resort. 

Mayor Jack Crompton says WFF plays an important role in Whistler’s overall arts and culture scene. 

“It’s a diversifier of our tourism economy,” he says. “Whistler was born as a tourism town with a focus on recreation. The Whistler Film Festival has been part of bringing arts, culture, heritage to the table in a very serious way. Logistically, it comes at a great time of year. It sets the tone for the festival season, which kicks off our winter season.” 

Looking ahead to the next decade—or at least next year, which will hopefully be post-COVID-19—Heck sees the festival adapting once again to the altered climate, likely offering some online element along with what could be a return to normal. 

While the online iteration has had its perks—namely a national audience—there’s still something irreplaceable about having people gather in a room to watch a movie together. 

“If there’s one challenge it’s that we haven’t been able to celebrate in person,” she says. “It’s hard for everybody. It’s a long road getting a film made and when you get to premiere it at a film festival, there’s a sense of ceremony and being able to celebrate with the people who made it possible … That celebration is muted.”

“Ultimately, we want to welcome everyone back to Whistler in 2021.” 

The Whistler Film Festival will be screening films online until Dec. 31. Like many arts organization, it has also been affected by the pandemic. If you would like to donate—or purchase tickets—visit