Heir independent 

The Whistler Film Festival and the Sundance ambition

If you’re Robert Redford, you’re likely accustomed to a life less ordinary.

An icon of the American silver screen, considered by many to be a living legend, Redford has got to have a different set of expectations and results than your average Joe.

You get behind a small, existing Utah film festival in 1981 only to have it grow over the next decades into an international phenomenon, an ever-present mention beside loaded words like Cannes.

Yawn.

The premier independent film event operating in the global cinescape...

All right. Even the golden boy of American cinema, a star of stars, has got to be impressed – thrilled even – with the stratospheric status trajectory of the Sundance Film Festival. So prominent is Sundance it is now an adjective, a metaphor, a benchmark.

Every festival, no matter how renegade, overtly or covertly longs to hear itself mentioned alongside the Robert Redford of American film festivals. A Sundance comparison functions as an invaluable affirmation.

And so Whistler Film Festival director Shauna Hardy and her crew were rightly tickled when the beloved S-word started floating around their third festival last December. One of Canada’s most acclaimed film scribes, Maclean’s magazine’s Brian D. Johnson, deemed Whistler a "fledgling Sundance," in a piece on eclectic filmmaker Matt Frame – director of Baghdad or Bust, which made its world premiere at Whistler and took Best Documentary honours. Oregon-based director Neal Miller premiered his film Raising Flagg in Whistler in 2003, following which he was quoted using the S-word in Variety.

"Sundance of the North." It has a nice ring. Sounds a bit like a thoroughbred. Definitely a jazzy hook.

As sexy as it sounds however, is it realistic? Booster catchphrases aside, does the four-year-old event have what it takes to become Canada’s answer to Sundance?

Geographically, the shoe fits. Like Sundance headquarters in Park City, Utah, Whistler is a draw based on location alone.

"When I said Whistler is Canada’s fledgling answer to Sundance, it’s an answer to Sundance in the sense that they’re establishing it as a destination in the mountains," Johnson said over the phone from Toronto.

The writer is returning this year and will participate in a tribute to the late Canadian filmmaker Philip Borsos, namesake of a new $10,000 award for Best Canadian Feature Film making its world premiere at the Whistler festival.

"For an industry person like me, going to Whistler is a real treat," Johnson added, "not just for the nature of the destination, but also because it provides for a kind of intimacy that you don’t get in larger festivals."

Vancouver-based filmmaker Carl Bessai concurred. "Whistler has everything Park City has times 10," he said.

In Sundance in 2002 with his film Lola , the veteran director came to Whistler last December to screen the film Émile starring Sir Ian McKellen, as well as to moderate a script analysis workshop. The fledgling fest struck a chord with Bessai and in 2004 he enlisted as the chair of the board of directors. He has since spearheaded several initiatives to go beyond locale and start building Whistler’s reputation for launching, discovering and promoting independent Canadian film, including the juried Borsos competition. Bessai was also instrumental in hiring programming director Bill Evans, formerly a director of showcases and of the NSI Film Exchange Festival at the National Screen Institute.

None would know better than the independent filmmaker that when calibrating a festival’s success in the eyes of the industry festival ticket sales are secondary to discoveries – and having the biz’s movers and shakers make money off the discoveries. A random search of Sundance is guaranteed to bring up mention of Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh, whose films Reservoir Dog s and Sex Lies and Videotape respectively are two of that festival’s most significant discoveries to date.

While Whistler’s 2003 program offered several premieres, there was a significant portion comprised of previously viewed films from Toronto, Vancouver, and other festivals. Looking around, Bessai noted several industry people who had obviously seen most of Whistler’s program at different festivals earlier in the year, yet were happily in Whistler simply for the destination. Imagine, he mused, if new films could be added? Industry buzz plus Whistler locale would make for a potent combination he claims is badly needed in Canadian independent cinema.

"Sundance’s number one preoccupation is launching yet unseen new American cinema," Bessai emphasized. "Where’s the Canadian response? What festival in Canada is the place to really take its own cinema seriously? You know what the answer is? There isn’t one.

"I’m being an opportunist, in a sense, because I see how a place like Whistler can help Canadian film," he continued, "because Canadian film needs a positive spin. It needs an image shake up. Sundance has done that for American independent film. American independent film was suffering 15-20 years ago. It was in trouble. A lot of great directors, like Tarantino, came out of the Sundance experience. We’ve got to do that for our people... we’ve let a lot of our artists and our creators ‘leave town’ in Canada because we discovered them last."

The move toward acquiring industry attention is evident in the shift in focus of this year’s Filmmaker Forum. Last year was primarily focused on accessible filmmaking technologies in the digital age. This year’s forum moves distinctly toward navigating the industry and includes a producer panel called Show Me the Money and a session on launching a marketing campaign. There’s also a roundtable with key Canadian distributors and acquisitions executives discussing what they look for in a project and what can make or break a deal, and a seminar on "Navigating Hollywood." Among the guest panelists is James Skotchdopole, executive producer of the Nora Ephron film Bewitched .

A more vibrant business scene is what is needed to attract the industry types who can boost a festival’s reputation, says Margo Langford, president of Vancouver-based CineClix, a company formed in February 2003 to sell digital downloads of festival films. Langford attended the Whistler Film Festival in 2003 and her first Sundance in January 2004, where she was privy to a small private "buyers only" screening of a documentary showing the making of The Motorcycle Diaries , a Walter Salles road movie about the young Che Guevera. (The film is also screening at the Whistler festival on Thursday, Dec. 2.)

"Robert Redford was there to introduce the film, and he got reminiscing beforehand about the early days (of Sundance)," Langford said. "I can see a definite parallel with Whistler from his stories."

However, it’s the "trade show" aspect of Whistler that has a ways to go, Langford said, citing a specific need for more industry lounges, meeting spots, speakers, and general socializing. While she hesitates to lend the Sundance of the North title to Whistler right now, the potential is there, she says, aided by the intimacy of the Whistler locale, similar to Sundance, as opposed to the atmosphere at a large metropolitan festival such as Toronto.

Ah Toronto. No matter how hard Whistler works and how gorgeous the location and how much any movers and shakers in the film business want to ski, there will always be the world-renowned Toronto International Film Festival to claim first among the Canadian events.

Johnson, who literally "wrote the book" on the Toronto International Film Festival, maintains that that city will always be the launch pad for top Canadian indie cinema ("your Egoyans, your Arcands"). But the sheer size of the event means year after year, good films are missed.

"For a small film, why not launch it in Whistler?" Johnson said. "Especially if you have a crack at a $10,000 prize, which for a lot of indie filmmakers is a lot of money.

"With that prize they’ve gone a long way towards making their festival an attractive destination for small Canadian filmmakers... some unknown Canadian filmmaker – our next Stephen Soderbergh – might choose to premiere his film at Whistler. And it’s a snowballing thing. If there’s some track record of successful stuff coming out of Whistler then it’s all the more attractive for somebody to go there the next time."

Johnson says the Whistler Film Festival’s strength will lie in being specialized. They may not have the population base needed to rise to the profile of a large metropolitan festival, but the flipside is that size can be equal parts benefit and downfall.

Though Sundance doesn’t have a large population base it draws its size from its "proximity to the American industry," Johnson says, the biggest in the world. And while Bessai waxes positive about Sundance, Johnson’s outlook is not so sunny.

"I wouldn’t like to see Whistler turn into Sundance," he stated. "Sundance is not a lot of fun. The worst bumper-to-bumper traffic I’ve ever seen in the world is at the Sundance Film Festival." (Strong words from a Toronto dweller). "It’s bursting at the seams. It’s outgrown its facilities. It’s outgrown the town.

"Whistler has a long way to go," he added, "but I think they’re building it on the right scale."

The right scale. It’s not exactly the Robert Redford-esque stratosphere of unlimited potential. But sensible can be sexy. Finding a niche can be exciting and admittedly, shooting for Sundance may be shooting a bit too high.

One state to the east, in Telluride, Colorado, another film festival has occurred yearly on Labour Day weekend for the past 31 years without so much celebrity sighting and bumper-to-bumper traffic. But don’t let the lack of pomp and blast fool you. In a Sept. 11 article rating the best of the world’s intimate festivals Globe and Mail critic Liam Lacey had Telluride front and centre, citing such influential discoveries over the years as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet , Michael Moore’s debut documentary Roger and Me and kung-fu ballet Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon .

Programming director Bill Evans says that seems more Whistler’s style.

"We want Whistler to be Sundance in the way of discoveries, but realistically we know we’ll never match it as a market," he remarked. "If there’s a festival we should model ourselves after it’s more the Telluride festival, kind of a ‘boutique’ festival. A quieter festival but equally esteemed."

Even more importantly, the Telluride festival has managed to maintain a sense of community, Evans notes. Something that has been pushed into the background at the rock ’n’ roll celebrity zoo that is Sundance.

The true film enthusiasts that flock to Telluride don’t seem to mind the lack of star power. Evans mentions that it was the Telluride model that impressed the need for community events at the upcoming Whistler festival, like the outdoor short film screenings in the village on Friday Dec. 3 and Saturday, Dec. 4.

This year, 2004, is a year of tremendous growth for the Whistler Film Festival. Submissions were up over 100 per cent and total film screenings are at 93, up from last year’s 40, with nine world premieres. The best Canadian film in Whistler may not have debuted in Toronto this year, but $10,000 later, one filmmaker in particular may not mind so much.

Who knows who’s waiting in the wings to not mind so much in 2005? The next Steven Soderbergh or Quentin Tarantino? The next Philip Borsos?

A good festival, says Johnson, is a balancing act. As long as Whistler can maintain the balance there will at least be a chance to find out. Too much business and you lose the community. Too much community and you lose the business, therefore losing industry buzz-generating potential. A chicken and egg game – the films drawing the industry scene with the industry scene, in turn, drawing the films.

But each festival to its own. Why live up to an unattainable model? Sundance will be Sundance. Whistler will be Whistler with a little bit of Telluride and some Sundance thrown in for spice.

Maybe Robert Redford will swing by sometime.

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