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Chris McDonald, outgoing Hot Docs president, leaves the organization in a vastly different place from which he found it.Courtesy of Hot Docs

When Chris McDonald joined Hot Docs in 1998, he walked into an office bereft of furniture, with no promise of a paycheque. “Maybe there was a chair,” he recalls, “but I went a couple months without cashing my cheque because I knew it wouldn’t clear.”

Twenty-five years later, McDonald is leaving the organization in a vastly different place from which he found it, first as executive director and then, since 2014, as president. Today, Hot Docs is the one of the world’s highest-profile documentary film festivals (second only to Amsterdam’s). And outside of festival season, the Toronto-based organization has helped launch the careers of countless filmmakers thanks to its various development funds, while also operating the world’s only doc-focused movie theatre on Bloor Street West.

Ahead of his departure at the end of this month – after which he’ll be succeeded by PBS and ABC News veteran Marie Nelson – McDonald spoke with The Globe and Mail about the past and future of docs.

Why leave now? Was 25 years just a nice round number?

It’s been my plan for a couple years, but was interrupted by the pandemic. And then we had some succession issues, with executive director Brett Hendrie leaving in 2021, then co-president Heather Conway leaving last year. So I was asked to stay on by the board and oversee things. But I’ll still be volunteering on a special Hot Docs project that will be announced in the coming year. And it’s not a fake special project. It’s real!

You arrived when Hot Docs was a bare-bones operation. How have you seen things grow since?

The beauty of an annual event is that all you have to do is be better the next year. And I’d say 95 per cent of what we saw the Toronto International Film Festival do, we tried to emulate in our own feisty little way. We joke that one-third of our good ideas came from sitting in a room, one-third from unintended consequences – when we created something great while solving another unrelated problem – and one-third from stealing from other events.

Has Hot Docs reached a place where it doesn’t have to wait and see what others are doing, though, but can chart its own path, and watch others emulate it?

Yes and no. Arts groups in this country are struggling, and getting audiences back is a real issue. It’s not just a matter of turning on the lights again. In 2019, our cinema averaged 750 people a day, every day, for 364 days a year. Those were huge numbers, we were on fire.

And what are the numbers now?

I would say it’s half of that right now, on average. But we built that audience once, and I’m confident that we can do it again. We don’t have the final attendance numbers for this year’s festival yet, but I know that we’re leaps and bounds above 2022. It’s a colossal relief for me and others.

How big a risk is it running a year-round cinema in today’s environment?

It’s the older crowd we’re having trouble getting back into the cinema. But artistic director Shane Smith has changed the type of programming that we’re doing, and built more one-off programming that’s attracted younger audiences. We’re being forced to diversify our programming, which is a good thing. We also own the building, so we can ride out the leaner times without it having too much impact on the organization.

Has that loss in older audiences been commensurately made up with the digital Hot Docs at Home initiative?

Not really. My theory is that older folks, they’re going back out to restaurants, maybe the opera, the ballet or other higher-end outings. But the cinema is one of the last boxes they’re going to check. It’ll take time and creative programming and keeping our prices accessible. Ten years ago, our earned revenues were about 22 per cent of our total revenues – box office, subscriptions for the cinema, delegate festival passes. And we grew that to 50 per cent in 2019. Earned revenue, that’s your most stable form of funding – it’s not dependent on changes in government funding or sponsorship. But you know what hurts earned revenue the most? Shutting down your cinemas for almost two years.

The streaming wars seemed to be a boon for docs. But now that appears to have settled, as places such as Netflix figure out more sustainable paths forward. How healthy is the industry today?

The big problem is that audiences are slow to return to cinemas for first-run films. At the same time, yes, the streaming marketplace has changed over the past 12 months, where there are fewer film sales coming out of festivals. The market is a bit confused at the moment, but it’s dynamic and there are a lot of factors at play. Documentarians still have traditional broadcasters financing films, we’re still seeing international co-productions. It’s never been easy to make docs. This is not something that people do to get rich quick.

What are the biggest challenges that Marie Nelson is going to face?

Obviously getting audiences back, but also finding more innovative ways to help filmmakers. That’s something that has set us apart – our mission is to showcase docs and help them get made. The thing that Marie has that I don’t is that she’s been a broadcaster for years. She has deep roots in that international community of decision-makers.

Is there a concern with her being based in the United States?

Her plan is to commute weekly from the Washington area for the first six months and see what happens. It’s not ideal, but if you told us three years ago that everyone would be working from home and we’ve have a 7,000-square-foot office that only a handful of people use every week, I wouldn’t have believed you. Prepandemic, it would’ve have been hard to imagine, but now I see no reason why she can’t put that on her list of challenging opportunities.

You mentioned the departure of Heather Conway, who seemed like your heir apparent. Why did she move on?

Well, it was her decision. She brought some great new thinking in terms of how we could organize ourselves structurally. Bringing in a director of finance, an in-house HR person. Things we should have done but didn’t until Heather arrived. We never expanded our staff without moaning about the costs. I think for Heather, and I’m putting words in her mouth, but it wasn’t the right job for her. And don’t forget it was in the middle of the pandemic. I respect that things change and that people change their minds.

Is there room to grow in Toronto’s film fest landscape? I’m surprised that the pandemic didn’t manage to actually kill any organization.

This is a tenacious community. It will look different and maybe downsize. But this reminds me of one lesson I learned early, which was that all the festivals and arts organizations here aren’t in competition. The best thing that we can do is share best practices, and be nice to everyone. It’s all we can afford to do.

This interview has been condensed and edited.