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Whistler Film Festival looking for a lift, but it's an uphill battle Add to ...

Opening night of the Whistler Film Festival and the crowd – some in ski caps, some in sequins – is packed into the cavernous Whistler Conference Centre ballroom, sitting in neat little rows of conference chairs, watching the B.C. premiere of Mike Goldbach’s Daydream Nation on a rented screen.

It’s hardly an optimal environment for a film festival, says Shauna Hardy Mishaw, festival co-founder/executive director/powerhouse. “Sit on this chair,” she instructs a reporter ahead of the gala. “How many hours can your ass handle that? You can’t be a top film festival with chairs like that.”

For two years, Hardy Mishaw has been plotting a takeover of Whistler’s first movie house, the Rainbow Theatre – which hasn’t shown films to the public for three years – as the festival’s permanent home. She’d been hoping to have the venue in place this year, the festival’s 10th anniversary, but with the town distracted by the Olympics it didn’t happen. Now, she’s got her sights set on 2011.

“The conference centre is palatable, but there’s only so much you can do with a conference centre. It’s not Roy Thomson Hall,” she said in Whistler on Wednesday, the day the festival announced plans that will see the tired, “grotty” 1980s theatre (which is located inside the conference centre) transformed into a state-of-the-art, 300-seat, digital theatre with new screen, projector, acoustics, lobby, exterior – and plush seats.

“It’ll be a Ferrari,” she says.

This isn’t simply about a theatre. This is about growing the intimate festival beyond its current status.

“We’re at a tipping point,” Hardy Mishaw says. “To us, it’s really where do we go from here? Where does this festival that has kind of risen out of a snowbank go?”

Hardy Mishaw argues Whistler has the potential to be one of the top film festivals in the world. It has a long, long way to go – an uphill battle, one might say – but it has also come a long way. The inaugural festival featured 13 films and a budget of $30,000. The box-office number rang through to a line installed in Hardy Mishaw’s condo.

Since then, annual attendance has tripled to almost 11,000. This year’s festival, with a budget of $1.5-million, boasts 68 films (34 features) – of which nine are world premieres.

On the business end of things, more than $76-million worth of deals have been closed or initiated here.

“I know people who have met here on a chairlift and are doing projects together. In Toronto, it’s the elevator pitch; in Whistler, it’s the hot tub pitch. And you spend a lot more time in the hot tub than the elevator.”

Among this year’s highlights will be Saturday’s world premiere of Bruce McDonald’s Hard Core Logo 2, and a Friday-night tribute, co-hosted by Atom Egoyan and George Stroumboulopoulos, for McDonald (who has three films at the festival) and Monte Hellman ( Two-Lane Blacktop), who executive-produced Reservoir Dogs).

The festival is inevitably compared with Sundance – which Hardy Mishaw says she finds flattering, but mostly inaccurate (beyond the skiing and the emphasis on training and development). “It’s a different ballgame. People call me ‘Red,’ ” says the redhead, “but I’m not Robert Redford. He can pick up the phone and call anyone in Hollywood. We can’t do that.”

But as Sundance is to Park City, Utah, she hopes her festival will be to Whistler. The resort town, which thrived for decades during its development boom and then preparations for the 2010 Winter Olympics needs a new focus, she says – and that should be cultural tourism. She envisions her Festival Theatre playing a leading role.

“Basically, four million Canadians go to visit cultural events every year across the country. That’s more than double that of downhill skiing,” she says, citing a recent study on Whistler’s cultural tourism development strategy. “The reality is Whistler definitely needs to look ahead to what the future holds.”

Adds Whistler Film Festival Society director of development Jane Milner: “If you can do it in Cannes, if you can do it in Park City, why not Whistler?”

Milner is heading a campaign – dubbed Future in Focus – to raise $5-million, half of which will go toward renovating the theatre. To date, they’ve raised just under $900,000 from private and corporate donors. A few weeks ago, they signed a 20-year lease to operate the Rainbow Theatre.

The municipality has earmarked $500,000 for the project (if requested provincial funding comes through) and has also applied for $1.1-million from Ottawa.

“I see cultural tourism as hugely important,” says John Rae, manager of strategic alliances for the resort municipality of Whistler and a WFFS board member. “I see it as augmenting, enhancing and expanding recreational, leisure-based activities – the reason for which people come to Whistler historically. We’re broadening or fattening the bull’s eye.”

Rae is confident the renovation will happen, but can’t promise it will be in time for next year’s festival. For that to occur, the film festival will need to raise $1.5-million more by April.

“The timeline’s short,” says Hardy Mishaw. “It’s giving me grey hairs.”

The Whistler Film Festival runs until Dec. 5 (whistlerfilmfestival.com)

 

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