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One of three co-founders, Bill Marshall was instrumental in making Toronto an essential destination of the film industry.

Jag Gundu/Getty Images

Like many great things in the movie business, the Toronto International Film Festival was conceived on a sunny, palatial terrace in Cannes – right near the bar. It was there, at the famed Carlton Hotel, where two Canadians, tired of the shoddy reputation their country's cinema had broadcast out to the world, schmoozed relentlessly, hoping to lure the film world's power players to their hometown for a little cinema, a little business and a lot of bad behaviour.

It was 1975, and business partners Dusty Cohl and William (Bill) Marshall had just completed a tour of the world's top film festivals – Los Angeles, Berlin, Atlanta – before hitting the resort town on the French Riviera with one very big idea, which Mr. Cohl had pitched Mr. Marshall a few years earlier back in Toronto, when the latter was working as chief of staff to then Toronto mayor David Crombie. Or perhaps it was Mr. Marshall who pitched Mr. Cohl. The details remain vague, even today.

"It's not any one person who did it. We had Dusty, who liked being around show business. He was a friend of Bill's, who then came to me. We all agreed, hey, doing a festival would suit our druthers for the future of the film industry in Canada," Henk Van der Kolk, Mr. Marshall's business partner, and the festival's third co-founder, recalled in a 2015 interview with The Globe and Mail. "Without any one of the three who became acknowledged as the founders of the festival, it would not have happened."

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But it did, and what was once known as the Festival of Festivals has cemented the political and artistic legacy of Bill Marshall, who died in Toronto on New Year's Day of cardiac arrest, at 77-years-old.

Just as Mr. Cohl, who died in 2007 at age 78, has been eulogized as one of the founding fathers of the Toronto film scene, so, too, should Mr. Marshall be remembered as the man who brought show business north of the border, and forever altered both Toronto's cultural scene and the international film calendar.

Bill Marshall was born in Glasgow to a father who worked on railway wagons during the day, but spent his off-hours in the city's leftist Citizens Theatre. After the Marshall family emigrated to Toronto when Bill was 15, it wasn't long before the young man veered away from the politics of his father and became obsessed with novels like The Great Gatsby, and all the glitz and glamour that world promised. "My father thought I was on my way to becoming a perfect socialist until I started reading F. Scott Fitzgerald," Mr. Marshall told Maclean's journalist Brian D. Johnson in the 2000 TIFF biography, Brave Films, Wild Nights: 25 Years of Festival Fever.

From there, it wasn't too far a leap into the world of actual show business. There was Mr. Marshall's nightclub venture in Jamaica that went nowhere; a Toronto play called Futz that netted him and partner Gil Taylor an obscenity charge; and a 1970 B-movie called Flick (or Dr. Frankenstein on Campus, as it was known to American audiences).

To add some stability to his night job in the entertainment world, Mr. Marshall plunged into the slightly more sane arena of politics, joining forces with Mr. Van der Kolk to create the Film Consortium of Canada, which produced informational films for the government of Ontario. It wasn't long until Mr. Marshall was also running David Crombie's mayoralty campaign, which led to him becoming Mr. Crombie's right-hand man. But the life of a bureaucrat quickly bored Mr. Marshall.

"I was sitting in Mayor David Crombie's office one day and I was tired of listening to city councillors yammering on," Mr. Marshall told The Globe in a 2015 interview. "My business partner Henk and I had a production company, and we both asked ourselves, when are we going to make real movies?"

"We thought that by starting a film festival, we would get the world to recognize us. To say, we're here!" said Mr. Van der Kolk.

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It wasn't long before Mr. Marshall and Mr. Van der Kolk met up with Mr. Cohl, and – through some sort of never-agreed-upon alchemy – the germ of TIFF was born.

Thanks to a fair amount of showmanship and schmoozing on that Cannes terrace, Mr. Marshall, Mr. Cohl and Mr. Van der Kolk launched the first Festival of Festivals on Oct. 18, 1976. Running seven days, the fest showcased 80 feature-length films, with $6 passes and venues including the Uptown Backstage, the New Yorker and the Toronto-Dominion Centre theatres, all of which are now extinct.

While government funding and corporate sponsorship were nowhere near today's levels, most Hollywood studios held back their offerings, the local press couldn't be bothered and celebrities were few and far between, the festival was by and large a success – even attracting an appearance from producing icon Dino De Laurentiis.

"Dino brought the first 90 seconds of [his 1976 remake of] King Kong," Mr. Marshall told The Globe in 2015. "We convinced him it would be the perfect platform – a big ape across a screen five storeys high [at the Ontario Place Cinesphere]! And Dino was the perfect guest: He told us all sorts of wild stories."

And, of course, the festival immediately earned its reputation for all-night debauchery.

"Before this, Toronto was a very dull, black-and-white, symphony-and-opera town. You went out to the opera, had a glass of punch, then went home," Mr. Marshall told The Globe. "But we were partying as hard as we could into the small hours of the morning. We brought out the rock 'n' roll side of Toronto."

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Each year after that, the festival grew in size, prominence and star power. Moved up a month to September, it also attracted the eyes of American studios eager to show off their wares before the busy fall season was crowded with competition. Suddenly, Toronto was a film destination – Mr. Marshall and Co. had altered the international face of the city in less than a decade.

Mr. Marshall would go on to serve as chair emeritus of TIFF, as well as help establish the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television and the Toronto Film and Television Office. Yet he could never quite shake the film festival bug, either – in 2014, he started the Niagara Integrated Film Festival, which wrapped its third edition this past June in the Niagara Peninsula.

"He was a pioneer in the Canadian film industry and his vision of creating a public festival that would bring the world to Toronto through the transformative power of cinema stands today as one of his most significant legacies," Piers Handling, director and CEO of TIFF, said in a statement this week. "Without his tenacity and dedication, the Toronto International Film Festival would not be among the most influential cultural festivals today."

Mr. Marshall is survived by his wife Sari Ruda, his children Lee, Stephen and Shelagh, and six grandchildren.

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