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An oral history of Hot Docs: How the festival went from humble beginnings to industry dominance

The new Hot Docs Cinema marquee on Bloor Street West in Toronto.

Gabriel Li


On Feb. 25, 1994, a short item appears in The Globe and Mail announcing an event celebrating a tradition as Canadian as “hockey, maple syrup and clear-cut logging”: documentary filmmaking. Hot Docs: The National Documentary Film Awards kicks off as a four-day Toronto summit hosted by the Canadian Independent Film Caucus (now called the Documentary Organization of Canada).

Rudy Buttignol (former Hot Docs board director): A bunch of us doc filmmakers, we’d meet the first Tuesday of every month to gripe. Finally we came up with the name Canadian Independent Film Caucus. I pulled out a three-ring sheet of paper, wrote the name down, the date, and told everyone to sign it and give me $10. We had $90 and were on our way. That’s the root of everything.

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John Walker (filmmaker, former board director): The concept evolved out of trying to simply support each other’s work, to exhibit it to the public, to have an awards show. We worked on the premise that Canadian audiences in particular wanted documentaries, and that we were pretty good at making them.

Paul Jay (founding board chair): The CIFC had no revenue, so I said, “Why don’t we start a festival and use that to fund the CIFC?” Everyone said I was insane and knew nothing about festivals, which was true. There was a vote: 11-1 against the idea. Well nobody cares if I do this on my own time, right? I phoned Debbie Nightingale and asked for help.

Debbie Nightingale (founding executive director): It was scary, exciting, nerve-wracking. I’d been running the industry centre at TIFF and it seemed like there were festivals popping up everywhere. The feeling was, “Oh, God, not another film festival.” But Paul made a compelling argument. The only thing, he told me, was that I had to raise the money. It took six months to get about $100,000, which in 1993 was a hefty chunk of change.

Jay: I got a meeting with Kodak Canada and asked for a grant to fund a feasibility study. They gave us $10,000. I took $2,000 to hire a guy to write the study, and used $8,000 to start the festival. Debbie worked for free the first six months, and I was a volunteer. And it took off like wildfire. We got 100 entries, had screenings at the Bloor Cinema, others in hotel rooms. At the first gala dinner, I said, “Tonight, I’m going to reveal the results of the feasibility study.” I opened to the report’s last page, which said: “Not feasible.”

An archival photo of the early Bloor Cinema marquee.

Kiana Hayeri/Courtesy of Hot Docs

The inaugural fest opens with Canadian director Jean-Claude Labrecque’s film André Mathieu, musicien, and includes the Canadian premiere of Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer by future provocateur Nick Broomfield. The next few years remain largely industry focused, with programming selected by juries made up of other documentarians.

Barri Cohen (filmmaker, founding board member): Some of the chaos then was trying to recuse yourself from one thing or another because you knew the filmmaker who submitted. I also remember being furious that my first film, Not Yet Diagnosed, wasn’t at Hot Docs because that jury was just a bunch of white guys from out east saying, “Eh, we didn’t get it.” I was, like, what the hell?

Hot Docs festival poster, 1994.

Courtesy of Hot Docs

The timing of the festival also delivers a slight buzzkill.

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Buttingnol: I heard a lot of grumbling from international guests: “Why are you making me come to Toronto now, of all times?”

Louise Lore (filmmaker, former board chair): Those who came from Europe hated it. The commissioning documentary editor from the BBC, he’s got a choice to go to either L.A. or Toronto in the middle of winter – which is he going to choose? … You have to remember, too, let’s face it, “documentary” is not sexy. It’s not like going to TIFF, where you might rub shoulders with a movie star.

In 1996, Hot Docs becomes a separately incorporated organization, and soon begins to focus on international cinema, public screenings and brand awareness. Notable late-nineties films include Peter Lynch’s Project Grizzly and Barbara Kopple’s Wild Man Blues.

Jay: At the same time, the CIFC was knocking on doors lobbying people for documentary filmmakers, we were asking the same guys for money for the film festival.

Walker: [The CIFC] realized it was time to get other people to run this thing so we could make the films we so desperately wanted to make. Hot Docs would continue on, and the board would be half filmmakers from members of what’s now called DOC.

Hot Docs festival poster, 1996.

Courtesy of Hot Docs

Anne Pick (filmmaker, former board chair): We’d been doing everything from licking stamps to organizing screenings.

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Lore: It began enthusiastically, but these people had their own films to make. And I think they were $40,000 in debt. I hired Chris [McDonald] as the first actual employee, so he could start revamping it.

Buttignol: That was our come-to-Jesus moment, when we knew that we had to start engaging with the broader public. Chris had the right personality, too, to deal with the eccentric characters who make up this industry – which is pretty much everybody.

Chris McDonald (former executive director, current president): It was a roll of the dice. I had a great job at the Canadian Film Centre, but this was an opportunity to be the head of an organization. I literally walked into an empty office with no furniture. Maybe there was a chair. I went a couple months without cashing my paycheque because I knew it wouldn’t clear. I was intimately aware of our bank balance.

Pick: Chris had to raise half of his own salary as part of his fundraising goals.

Karen Tisch (former managing director): If you said you worked for Hot Docs, people would say, “What? Hot Dogs?” Even establishing “doc” as a familiar term for the general public was an issue. But what was happening in the culture was fortuitous, as there was a surge of interest in non-fiction work. Suddenly, more docs were getting commercial releases, Michael Moore’s stuff. We were able to ride that momentum.

Hot Docs festival poster, 1999.

Courtesy of Hot Docs

After his hire in 1998, McDonald and his team enact a series of game-changing moves, including shifting the festival to May and hiring programmers.

Lynne Fernie (filmmaker, Canadian programmer emeritus): It was all different then, screening VHS tapes. I’d go to the office and load up like a camel with 40 films at a time. It was a job about volume.

But in an an ill-fated bid to appeal to the public, Hot Docs in 1999 sets up shop in Little Italy.

McDonald: That was my dumb idea. I thought it’d be super charming to have screenings in cafés and bars during the day. The filmmakers were not so thrilled because there are espresso machines running, telephones ringing, streetcars rumbling by. It was just one year.

In 2000, the festival hits a turning point, nearly doubling its audience numbers to 16,700, welcoming living legends D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and launching what’s now known as the Hot Docs Forum, an international co-financing pitch event.

Tisch: Part of developing the scope of the event was making it more of an international industry event, so we developed the Doc Forum, which had been done at IDFA [International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam].

Jennifer Baichwal (filmmaker): I hate pitching, there’s something demeaning about it. But we pitched our film The True Meaning of Pictures at a Hot Docs Forum and got financing to make it, got partners. As an arena of industry activity, it’s pre-eminent in North America.

Norm Bolen (former board chair): When I joined around 2001, it was a little dysfunctional with a lot of rivalries. Some wanted it to be an industry-only event, some wanted it to be more public. There was confusion as to who was in charge. But these were swept away. Chris McDonald in particular, once he knew he had a board interested in resolving these issues, we could focus. There were reservations, but if you set ambitious stretch goals and commit to them, you can do more than you think.

The Royal Cinema during Hot Docs 1999.

Courtesy of Hot Docs

The festival grows by leaps and bounds in the early aughts (32,000 attendees in 2003; 51,500 in 2006), premieres films that would go on to Oscar fame (War/Dance, Man on Wire, The Cove), introduces education initiatives and free daytime screenings for seniors and youth, and cements its year-round presence with monthly Doc Soup screenings. At the same time, the industry landscape undergoes seismic shifts.

Robin Mirsky (current board co-chair): We went from multiple broadcasters licensing docs to a very small number willing to do so now, mainly the CBC and educational broadcasters. It’s been getting more and more difficult for filmmakers to live and work.

Fernie: We were a bit worried after funding dried up for some filmmakers – we thought our submissions would go down. But technology also started making it possible to make films less expensively. It was a democratization, in a way.

Cohen: There were a number of changes in the funding ecology, and not to the benefit of filmmakers. It would hurt the pool of what one could curate. Around 2003, 2004, that period was pretty shallow.

Brett Hendrie (current executive director): There’s only so much that we can control – we program the films, we don’t make them. For the programming team, they’re always looking for the best possible films, and we try to be careful to not overload the festival with something like [celebrity-focused films], because they can take the oxygen out of the room.

Buttignol: Documentaries about international rock stars get you lots of press, especially if Sting or U2 show up, but those aren’t important. They’re not the ones that are going to change the world. Look at what Blackfish did, or An Inconvenient Truth. That’s the spirit of the festival.

In 2005, Hot Docs rebrands, introducing the current slogan, “Outspoken. Outstanding.” Yet as it grows, it faces tests as to balancing corporatization with its commitment to a medium ingrained with ideals of social justice.

Ezra Winton (visiting scholar, Lakehead University; director of programming, Cinema Politica Network): In 2006, Cadillac was a sponsor, and ran an ad before every screening. That same year, they showed An Unreasonable Man, a film about Ralph Nader. Word got out, and people started to bring in their bicycle bells to ring during the ad.

McDonald: I remember that film spending an awful lot of time on Nader’s crusade against the auto industry. That was a bad one, but a lesson learned.

Jay: Commercialization, it’s a hard thing to wrestle with. Even when we started it, we needed the grant from Kodak. On the other hand, we were more restrained about naming things after sponsors.

Winton: The question of values becomes central when talking about documentaries – there’s a long-standing historical engagement with truth-telling. Hot Docs has, after 25 years, a chance now to be a leader in the festival world by publishing its best practices to actually articulate its values.

Hot Docs festival poster, 2010.

Courtesy of Hot Docs

Festival attendance continues to grow – 122,000 in 2009; 150,000 in 2011 – and a few months before the 2012 edition, Hot Docs and Neil Tabatznik’s Blue Ice Group open the newly renamed Bloor Hot Docs Cinema after a multimillion-dollar renovation. At the time, it is the world’s only doc-focused cinema.

Neil Tabatznik (current board member): I’d been thinking of opening a documentary theatre for 15 years. I’d go to see docs at Hot Docs and Sundance but the audience beyond festivals – the potential to change people’s worldview – was incredibly limited. Outside Michael Moore, who made it to theatres?

McDonald: Neil suggested looking at the two theatres on Mount Pleasant, and the one in Bloor West Village.

Tabatznik: We looked at the porn theatre in Koreatown for two seconds.

McDonald: But we said almost immediately: the Bloor. We knew the owners, knew they wanted to sell, and knew they didn’t want it redeveloped. Neil stuck his neck out for us and provided a safety net, to underwrite any shortfall for the first go.

The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema in 2013.

John R. Barduhn

Tabatznik: Hot Docs were the best partners I could’ve invited to run the theatre. But no one was convinced it was going to be a success, or even able to wash its own face. I was giving my financial adviser a huge headache. Early on, we’d have docs with three to five people in the audience. But the uptick began almost immediately, and the fear of having to carry it disappeared.

McDonald: It took us a while to get the balance. I didn’t appreciate that the cinema’s year-round audiences are very different from the festival’s. Festival-goers, some will see anything. So we created subscription series and mini-festivals where we controlled the content, not waiting for a blockbuster to be released.

In 2016, the festival screens a record 232 films, its audience numbers hit 211,000, and it finally becomes the master of its own domain. Thanks to a $4-million donation from the Rogers Foundation, Hot Docs takes ownership of the Bloor, with the theatre renamed the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema. Meanwhile, a $1-million gift creates the Ted Rogers Fund for production development (complimenting the fest’s other long-running doc production funds).

Mirsky: That was spearheaded by Martha Rogers, who loves docs and wanted to honour [her late father] Ted. It allowed us to buy the building from Neil, so we run the business and the festival. Having a 365-day presence in a theatre that everybody in Toronto knows, that’s a game-changer.

Tabatznik: Chris calls and says, “I have some good news for you!” And I said, “That was the worst news you could’ve given me.” It was sad, but it’s the right thing for Hot Docs.

McDonald: We have ambitious plans for the cinema, still. I wouldn’t mind having a couple smaller screens. I think there are enough doc enthusiasts out there in Toronto.

The audience watches a screening of the film Collective Invention in 2015.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In 2018, the festival’s 25th edition arrives with its largest lineup yet (246 full-, medium-, and short-length films), and reaches gender parity in its programming. As streaming services such as Netflix increasingly look toward docs to build their catalogues, though, questions arise as to how large both the festival and its theatrical exhibition operation could, and should, grow.

McDonald: I worry about everything, but nothing has come along to replace that magical and collective experience of watching a film with hundreds of strangers. When that happens, I’ll worry more.

Fernie: It’s a political performance, to go to a theatre and watch a film together. There’s always a desire to do something new and keep it fresh, sure, but the festival should take its cues from the films and filmmakers. Listen to them. They’re the ones putting their lives and Visa cards on the line.

Walker: As a Canadian filmmaker, I want to make sure that our films are being highlighted. We could be showing more Canadian films, and there is a danger in getting too big. Too big, too fast, and you collapse.

McDonald: We’ve learned by listening to our audience. We know that price is a factor, accessibility is a factor. You don’t want to get too big, so a nice number is closer to 200 [films]. I trust Brett and [director of programming Shane Smith] explicitly. I don’t imagine they want to go any bigger than they are now. You don’t want to overwhelm.

Jay: The festival is in a place and time right now where we’re facing existential issues as humans, from climate change to geopolitical rivalries. The festival needs to position itself in the context of the moment we’re in. To just celebrate the documentary form, so what? These films are meant to have a social impact. They’re made by people who want to change the world. Let’s change the world.

The 2018 edition of Hot Docs runs April 26 through May 6 in Toronto (hotdocs.ca).

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