Noah Cowan, the former co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival and inaugural artistic director of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, has died at the age of 55 after a year-long battle with glioblastoma.
The highly influential programmer was a widely respected presence in the international film community for decades, responsible for bringing daring and boundary-breaking work to audiences both in Canada and abroad. From international cinema (especially pictures coming out of Japan) to Canadian film (he was an early champion of Atom Egoyan, Guy Maddin, Patricia Rozema and Zacharias Kunuk) to LGBTQ+ features, Cowan was a committed advocate to broadening moviegoers’ tastes.
“I think Noah pushed our buttons in the best way possible, encouraging all of us to think bigger and wider and sexier than perhaps we were before,” said TIFF chief executive officer Cameron Bailey, a long-time colleague of Cowan’s, in an interview.
Born in Hamilton, Cowan began his film career at TIFF in 1981, when he volunteered for the organization. After returning to TIFF as a staffer in the box office and print-traffic departments for several years, he began programming for the festival in 1989. That year, at the suggestion of then director of programming Piers Handling, Cowan helped create the inaugural Midnight Madness program of cult cinema that remains one of the festival’s most popular slates.
During his early years at TIFF, Cowan also co-founded the New York City-based Cowboy Pictures, a distribution company that launched art-house pictures and collaborated with Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder label to bring forgotten cult and international cinema to a new generation of cinephiles.
In 2004, Cowan returned to TIFF to serve as the organization’s co-director, and then in 2008 took on the role of the inaugural artistic director of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the organization’s new downtown headquarters. During his time in that position, Cowan was responsible for nearly everything that went on inside the sleek five-screen multiplex year-round, including the launch of a series of acclaimed exhibitions and installations highlighting the careers of filmmakers including Tim Burton and David Cronenberg.
After six years inside the Lightbox, Cowan departed Toronto for the SFFILM, San Francisco’s premiere film institution and home of the San Francisco International Film Festival, where he was executive director from 2014 through 2019. Five years later, he moved to Los Angeles, where he launched a media consulting company that worked with such cultural organizations as the Telluride Film Festival and Edinburgh’s Centre for the Moving Image.
“One of Noah’s incredible strengths was his sixth sense about where he could take audiences in terms of films people would enjoy,” recalls Nuria Bronfman, the executive director of the Movie Theatre Association of Canada and a long-time friend of Cowan’s. “He pushed audiences harder, and in doing so built markets for certain kinds of films that didn’t exist in Toronto before him.”