During the interview process for the job of executive director of the Vancouver International Film Festival, Jacqueline Dupuis answered a lot of questions about the future of film festivals, at a time when screening habits were being so thoroughly disrupted. Fresh out of pulling the Calgary International Film Festival from the brink of insolvency, she set out a vision for rethinking the festival model and for a VIFF that not only proudly screened Canadian and international films, but branched out well beyond, with programming that would draw audiences off their couches and into theatres.
She got the job, and her vision has come to life. And now, she’s stepping down.
This year’s festival, her final VIFF, will screen more than 300 films (more than 200 of them are features). But it will also include a session with Public Enemy founder Chuck D. breaking down the song Fight the Power from the film Do the Right Thing for the podcast Song Exploder. Vancouver musician Louise Burns (formerly of Lillix) and other musicians will perform to live-score the film This Is Spinal Tap. There is a feminist live reading of Some Like it Hot, where women play men playing women.
Also on the schedule: Master Classes and Creator Talks with industry giants such as Michael Moore and Michael Apted, as well as showrunners of TV series and other creators including sound and costume designers. There’s a two-day conference focusing on Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality.
As for VIFF’s longer-term future, there’s a plan, funding in place and a schedule for a renovation of the festival’s Vancity Theatre, which will include a microtheatre (with 40 to 50 seats) and a permanent VR/AR lounge. Construction is set to begin in the new year and be completed by VIFF 2020.
Dupuis won’t be around for that – at least not as executive director. Immediately following the festival, her eighth leading VIFF, she is stepping down, leaving the organization not for a new job (yet), but because it’s the right time.
“Everything that I set out to do here has been achieved and quite significantly – not to toot my own horn – we really achieved what we set out to,” she says during an interview in her soon-to-be-emptied office at VIFF headquarters. “And I think it’s time for the organization to look at new leadership and where it wants to go in the future.”
Dupuis, whose education was in economics and whose background before the Calgary festival was in the tech sector, has also brought in structural changes to VIFF, de-siloing the organization so that the festival, the Vancity Theatre and programming targeting the production industry have combined operations.
And she feels there has seen a shift at the organizational culture on her watch.
“Everybody here is for change. Everybody here is for ‘let’s try it.’ Everybody here is for ‘let’s figure it out.’ And that’s a very different culture than I think VIFF was when I first came here. So I think that sort of careful fearlessness really helped us move the needle forward.”
At the heart of the festival is still film – and a proud emphasis on Canadian film, unlike that other giant festival to the east, with its A-list red carpets and blockbusters. VIFF also offers a fine slate of East Asian cinema, as has always been the case. But the additional (more than straight-up film screening) programming – organized into streams with names such as VIFF Live, VIFF Amp, VIFF Immersed and Totally Indie Day – has been Dupuis’s focus, and a large part of her legacy.
“We were literally pioneers in terms of what we were doing. There was no one to call and [ask about] programming live events,” she says. “And then how long does it take a legacy institution to shift itself in order to accommodate a new way of being? That was a much slower process than I anticipated. That said, when I think about everything we’ve accomplished over the last eight years, it blows my mind. I guess it’s expectations versus reality, but then we ended up in a really incredible place anyway.”
According to VIFF, the festival, with a current operating budget of more than $5.5-million, has seen 46-per-cent growth in earned revenue (ticket sales) from 2012 to 2018. Last year, 25 per cent of respondents to the audience survey said they were new to the festival; and the under-25 demographic grew 13 per cent between 2017 and 2018.
One thing Dupuis is disappointed not to have accomplished was adding another theatre venue. She scouted locations, spoke with developers, tried to make it happen – a good problem to have, she points out, considering the box-office struggles experienced by other art-house cinemas in North America.
“The microcinema is certainly going to help, but what we really need is a second cinema with at least one screen,” she says. “So I hope that that’s something the new leadership of the organization continues because it’s really needed.”
Born and raised on a grain farm in Biggar, Sask. (where the town’s welcome sign reads “New York is big but this is Biggar”), Dupuis did not grow up wanting to run film festivals, even if she did enjoy watching movies. She studied economics at the University of Saskatchewan and was working at Sun Microsystems (since acquired by Oracle) when she was asked to join the board of CIFF, in particular to help with fundraising. During a bankruptcy scare, Dupuis stepped up and realized she enjoyed the challenge. She moved into the executive-director position. Then, the VIFF opportunity came up.
She joined VIFF in 2012 as its first executive director. She took over as the head of the organization when long-time festival director and chief executive Alan Franey stepped aside after the 2013 festival to focus on programming.
The Vancouver job, clearly, has been all-consuming for Dupuis, 45, with long hours and intense multitasking required. A devoted yogi, she credits yoga and meditation with helping her focus. She took a sabbatical at one point to think things through. And now, it’s time for something new, she says.
Two days after VIFF wraps, she will hop on a plane to Bali, where she will take part in a weeks-long writers’ retreat. She has no interest in writing professionally, she assures, but loves to write and will focus on screenwriting.
She says a few opportunities have come her way and she has some irons in the fire, but there is nothing imminent at this point. She seems genuinely unsure about what’s next – maybe something else in the film industry, or not-for-profit, or perhaps she’ll start something on her own.
“I really need to take a break and regroup and really focus on what’s important to me in this chapter before I make any decisions or decide which path to go down. So I’m looking forward to a bit of a reset,” she says. “And I want to make sure that I come at it with a really fresh perspective.”
She says she will not actively begin looking for her next job until she returns from more than two months of travel. What she really needs is a pause. “I’m peacing out.”
Marsha Lederman’s VIFF viewing wish list
Three world premieres
Directed by Charles Wilkinson
Haida contemporary artist Robert Davidson has been a central figure in Northwest Coast art. I adore his work, but I also love listening to him; he is so intelligent and thoughtful. So this documentary is a natural top pick for me.
Ursula Von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own
Directed by Daniel Traub
This documentary follows this amazing contemporary artist’s process, from conception to installation. It also tells a story of survival – of poverty, abuse and difficult beginnings in a post-Second World War Displaced Persons camp.
Directed by Marie Clement
When captured by the Taliban, a Gwich’in soldier confronts his own difficult past – and strikes an unusual alliance with his captors.
Three Globe 4-star-reviewed films from TIFF
Read more: The Globe’s guide to TIFF 2019 movies
Anne at 13,000 ft
Directed by Kazik Radwanski
I would watch anything starring Deragh Campbell. In this Canadian film, she plays a young daycare worker who has trouble identifying professional and personal boundaries.
Directed by Bong Joon Ho
An impoverished family of four makes due in a cramped basement apartment, until a job opens up with a wealthy family. Globe Film Editor Barry Hertz calls it an exhilarating and furious indictment of class struggle.
The Two Popes
Directed by Fernando Meirelles
This is speculative drama about Pope Benedict’s decision to cede the top position at the Vatican to the man who is now Pope Francis, which Globe arts writer Kate Taylor calls an unusual look inside the papacy.
Three more on my list
Directed by Taika Waititi
In the final days of the Second World War, a member of the Hitler Youth has an imaginary bestie – Adolf Hitler. But there’s something real upstairs in the attic.
The Painted Bird
Directed by Vaclav Marhoul
Based on Jerzy Kosinski’s novel of the same name, this nearly three-hour film is said to be a harrowing, unflinching view of the Holocaust. Despite audience walkouts at TIFF and in Venice, I am going to steel myself to watch this important work.
La Belle Époque
Directed by Nicolas Bedos
VIFF’s closing night film looks absolutely charming – a French man in a disintegrating marriage employs a time travelling service to re-experience the night he met his wife.
VIFF runs Sept. 26-Oct. 11.
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