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Hot Docs president Marie Nelson at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto on March 7.Laura Proctor/The Globe and Mail

When this year’s edition of Hot Docs kicks off Thursday in Toronto, North America’s largest documentary film festival will celebrate its 31st anniversary under a dark cloud of uncertainty.

Last month, Hot Docs president Marie Nelson told The Globe and Mail that the organization was facing “significant operational challenges” and that its future was in serious doubt. A little more than two weeks later, 10 members of the Hot Docs programming team resigned. The next day, organizers announced that Hussain Currimbhoy had stepped down as artistic director for “personal reasons,” just four months after his appointment.

In the ensuing weeks, Nelson has delivered urgent fundraising calls to patrons, organizers have excoriated the Liberal government for leaving Hot Docs out of the 2024 federal budget and the festival issued a lengthy statement on Gaza that appears to have only further divided members of the filmmaking community.

Ahead of Hot Docs’ opening night, Nelson and board member and filmmaker Nick de Pencier spoke with The Globe about the state of the cultural institution.

In its statement last week, Hot Docs said it requested “a couple million in emergency support” from Ottawa. What lobbying efforts were made?

Marie Nelson: A significant effort was made across every level of government, and certainly with all the ministries that you would expect to be involved.

Hot Docs’ T3010 Registered Charity Information Return for the reporting period ending May, 2023, appears to only have been filed with the Canada Revenue Agency earlier this month. How could any lobbying efforts and applications for funding be done without Hot Docs being compliant with rules to file no later than six months after a fiscal period ends?

Nelson: I apologize for not knowing the ins and outs of the CRA and regulations, but what I will say is that one of the things that we’ve tried to communicate is that we were in an incredible race against time to ensure that we had all our ducks in a row, as far as completing the necessary audits for the organization. We were in conversations with those agencies.

The latest CRA report shows that Hot Docs had a deficit of just more than $2-million in the period ending May, 2023. Sources have said that cash flow is so tight currently that there might not be any left by mid-June. Is that accurate?

Nelson: When we last spoke in March we tried to sound an alarm bell, because we really meant it when we said that we were fearful that this year’s festival is going to be our last. That was a very serious call to action on the part of the government to help us address what we believe to be pandemic-related operational deficits pushing us into this position.

It is accurate to say that this coming June is very much a loud alarm bell, then?

Nelson: I cannot say it’s June, but what I can say is that we’re in a very financially challenged position.

When you joined Hot Docs last June, were you aware that it was running a $2-million deficit?

Nelson: When I started there were lots of financial inquiries done across the organization to make sure that we had the most accurate picture, and that work was in process as I arrived.

Nick de Pencier: Hot Docs had a lot of success for a long time, and I think we got used to that. But you’re most vulnerable in a time of transition. The cataclysmic upheaval of the pandemic was huge, and then we compounded that with quite a lot of senior staff turnover. There was a lot of internal work that had to be done to the point where Marie hasn’t been able to execute a forward-looking vision.

On staffing, CRA records show that the number of full-time employees almost doubled from 2022 to 2023, going from 47 full-time to 84 full-time.

Nelson: There are some real concerns about how folks are using those staffing numbers. Some of those may be contract positions versus full-time. That doubling number is actually a junk number. I don’t believe that gives you an accurate snapshot. Today, it’s roughly just under 50 full-time.

If government funding is a critical issue, why were fundraising expenses $807,000 in 2022, but only $174,000 in 2023?

Nelson: I can’t answer that unfortunately.

Can you speak then to why a number of people on the fundraising and development side of Hot Docs have left the organization over the past year?

Nelson: Part of what might be helpful is broader context looking at the overall state of affairs when it comes to development professionals in arts non-profits in the city. This is a time of great transience. It’s been challenging for many organizations to hold onto development professionals because they’re in demand.

There is the issue of staff departures, but in 2023, Hot Docs had 23 board members. Today, there are only 16. What is the state of things on the board?

De Pencier: The board, roughly from the time that Hot Docs was conceived, is half from the filmmaking community and half the way you’d expect. Obviously, the board oversaw a lot of the success of the organization, and an initiative has started to look at governance, and the size and composition of the board. But any insinuation that there are people leaving in discomfort would be greatly overstated. A number of people left because their terms were up and they wanted to move on.

Marie, how would you describe morale inside the organization? You’ve said that you’ll welcome back the programmers who left, but it does risk creating resentment among staff who decided to stay.

Nelson: Everyone who hosts a festival knows that by the time you get on the eve of things, it’s tough. It wouldn’t be honest to say there isn’t that sense of pressure. But I can also tell you that when I go into the office, everyone is superfocused on delivering a fantastic festival.

On going into the office – there has been discussion about your status as a commuting president, with your primary residence being D.C. Not only because of the geographical disconnect, but because of reports that Hot Docs pays for your flights and accommodation while in Toronto.

Nelson: When I accepted this role, I accepted it as someone who has a young family with roots that demand I be here in Washington. That was not a secret, and I think it was considered an asset. One of the things that I was looking forward to diving into was developing strategies to support the U.S. Hot Docs Foundation, and expand opportunities to raise money in other geographical locations. There’s never been a time when I’ve been needed by the organization in Canada when I haven’t been able to be there.

De Pencier: When the hiring committee vociferously supported Marie’s hiring, it was absolutely with the acknowledgement and the agenda that Hot Docs’ success transcends the neighbourhood where it started. Having someone who is internationally connected is the philosophy of having Marie in her position.

It seems that Hot Docs was shocked to not be included in the federal budget. Was the mood in Ottawa promising up to that point?

De Pencier: This is a government that has declared a war on disinformation and has a number of initiatives to support fact-based journalism. Of course, funding arts institutions like the Shaw Festival and our brothers and sisters at TIFF is hugely important. But Hot Docs occupies a space at a nexus there.

Nelson: Our conversations with all levels of government were quite difficult, because we were in a place where we believed the resources just didn’t exist. We’re thrilled to see support for cultural institutions in the federal budget – we want our partners to get the support they need to make it through to the other side – but we want and deserve to join them. Not just because of our legacy, but because of all the things we have in the hopper to do.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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