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Something you'll never see at Cannes: A snowy outdoor screening at the Whistler Film Festival in 2007. (Andy Dittrich)
Something you'll never see at Cannes: A snowy outdoor screening at the Whistler Film Festival in 2007. (Andy Dittrich)

Movies

Could Whistler film fest be the new Sundance? Add to ...

A powerful Hollywood voice is championing the Whistler Film Festival, and the high-profile push could see WFF evolve into an important stop on the festival circuit. The executive editor of the entertainment-industry publication Variety says the festival has two major things going for it: location and timing.

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“What would happen if you created an awards-season strand of programming and appearances [at WFF]in this critical week? What would happen for the films? What would happen for this festival, which has this proximity to Hollywood that’s very tantalizing?” said Steven Gaydos on the line from Los Angeles, where Variety is based.

The answer he envisions: “A really healthy exchange of ideas and business cards between Hollywood and Canada taking place each year in Whistler.”

Gaydos was struck by the possibilities of the Whistler Film Festival, which opens Wednesday, when he visited it last year as screenwriter of Road to Nowhere, noted U.S. director Monte Hellman’s latest film. “Day 1 in Whistler, I had kind of a duh moment: Like, look at this place. Look how close it is to L.A., look how beautiful it is, look at all the cool people here, look at what a good film festival they have,” says Gaydos. “And then the topper was the festival takes place the first week in December, when everyone in Hollywood is very, very intent on their involvement in the awards season.”

The event is a golden opportunity, he says, to put filmmakers and stars from award-focused films in front of Academy members, who would welcome an easy same-time-zone jaunt up to a beautiful ski resort; Hollywood types who probably don’t know the festival – or even the village – exists.

“I don’t think the key has been turned in terms of opening the door to Hollywood consciousness,” he says. “And I think once the door to Hollywood consciousness is opened on Whistler, I think some marvellous things can happen for Whistler.”

Over the past year, Gaydos and Whistler Film Festival executive director and co-founder Shauna Hardy Mishaw have solidified a partnership that will see Variety establish a prominent presence at this year’s festival, and Whistler become one of about 30 festivals that Variety partners with.

“It puts the Whistler Film Festival on the map internationally, along with the other festivals that Variety has connected with,” says Hardy Mishaw, citing examples such as Toronto, Cannes and Sundance. “We’re now in that circle. We got invited in.”

Inspired by the partnership, the Whistler festival has hired an L.A. publicity firm this year (a first) and has been running ads in Variety (also a first). Variety, meanwhile, has been writing about the festival.

“Variety’s presence means people who are wondering: ‘If I go up to Whistler, will I be on anyone’s radar?’ [will]know they’ll be on Variety’s radar,” says Gaydos.

Gaydos made introductions for the festival to a key player at Paramount, and that's how Whistler managed to land for its gala opening a special advance screening of Young Adult, Jason Reitman’s hotly anticipated follow-up to Up in the Air and a film that sees him reunite as director with Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody.

The film’s co-star, Patton Oswalt, will come to Whistler to receive a festival Spotlight Award for Supporting Performance of the Year. Oswalt, already generating Oscar buzz (there have been other pop-up advance screenings in advance of Young Adult’s Dec. 16 opening), can “absolutely” benefit, says Gaydos, from the Whistler platform.

Attracting the film – and Oswalt – is a coup for Whistler, for sure, but it also means the festival, for the first time in its 11-year history, will open with a film that isn’t Canadian. (Although over all, Canadian content is up slightly, at 56 per cent compared with 51 per cent last year.)

Variety’s presence has attracted some other names as it hosts tributes or hands out awards to actor Andy Serkis (he will appear via Skype from the set of The Hobbit), Kung Fu Panda 2 director Jennifer Yuh Nelson and Canadian actor/screenwriter Jay Baruchel ( Almost Famous), who is also about to be named to Variety’s annual 10 Screenwriters to Watch list.

Michael Shannon ( Boardwalk Empire), currently in Vancouver filming Man of Steel, will also be honoured at WFF’s annual Spotlight Tribute and Gala.

“These are events that have definitely taken us up a notch,” says Hardy Mishaw, who notes the festival is still trying to raise money to renovate a local movie theatre into a permanent venue.

But that doesn’t mean she wants the festival to expand in size.

“We will always be a boutique festival,” she says. “That will always be my hope as the founder, that our vision would remain intact. I think that’s the thing that makes Whistler such a great festival. But our hope would be to increase the calibre of attendees.”

As perfectly positioned as the festival now is to generate buzz in the run-up to awards season, Gaydos says Whistler could become even more important if the Oscars, as rumoured, are moved to an earlier date yet again.

The festival is also getting set to make another major announcement this week: a new program to establish the Whistler film fest as a developer of film industry co-productions and funding between China and Canada. The details are to be announced on Sunday, but with bits of information leaking out, the initiative has already caught some high-level attention, sparking, for instance, an inquiry from the Weinstein Company.

“We’re on their radar now because they’re hearing about us because we’re in Variety. ... They’re like: ‘What is going on up there?’ ” says Hardy Mishaw.

The Whistler Film Festival runs today through Sunday. For more information, visit whistlerfilmfestival.com.

FIVE FILMS TO CATCH AT WHISTLER

Young Adult Jason Reitman (USA)

A novelist (Charlize Theron) returns to her hometown to win back her high-school sweetheart (Patrick Wilson). Special advance screening, opening gala, Wednesday, 9 p.m., Whistler Conference Centre.

Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey Constance Marks, Philip Shane (USA)

This documentary introduces viewers to Kevin Clash, the puppeteer behind that giggling furry red monster, Elmo. Thursday, 4 p.m., Village 8 Cinema; Sunday, 1:15 p.m., Whistler Conference Centre.

Kivalina v. Exxon Ben Addelman (Canada)

A tiny village in northwestern Alaska takes on Big Oil in this world-premiere documentary. Friday, 7 p.m., Millennium Place.

The Sorcerer and the White Snake Tony Ching Siu Tung (China)

A young herbalist (Raymond Lam) encounters two demon spirits (Eva Hunag, Charlene Choi) who are half woman/half snake. Jet Li stars as the sorcerer who does battle with the snake demons. Friday, 9:30 p.m., Village 8 Cinema.

Marilyn Christopher Petry (Canada)

Based on a story written in prison by Paddy Mitchell, a member of the infamous Stopwatch Gang, this world premiere follows a bank robber on the lam (Ryan Robbins) who takes a young runaway (Allison Mack) under his wing. Saturday, 9:30 p.m., Millennium Place.

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