Sometimes, a rejection from Noah Cowan was the best thing that could happen to a filmmaker.
As one of the leading organizers of the Toronto International Film Festival – at various points in charge of programming Asian cinema, the popular Midnight Madness slate, and ultimately overseeing the entire festival lineup in his role as artistic co-director – Mr. Cowan had to say “no” far more often than “yes.” And while being accepted into TIFF could change an artist’s life, to be on the receiving end of Mr. Cowan’s uniquely thoughtful passes could do just as much, too.
In the summer of 2009, producer Angus Aynsley submitted his documentary Waste Land to TIFF. Mr. Aynsley and his team were exhausted, having just spent two years filming in the world’s largest landfill, located just outside Rio de Janeiro, on a shoestring budget. But they were hopeful that a Toronto premiere could land them a distribution deal. Instead, Mr. Cowan passed. But he also asked Mr. Aynsley to give him a call.
“I was initially gutted, but Noah said that he could see the potential,” Mr. Aynsley recalls. “He went on: ‘I know you’re tired but this film deserves to be in a major festival, so go rework it, and then you’ll have something special.’ It was like someone putting an arm around your shoulder giving you the strength to continue.”
Mr. Aynsley made the costly decision to “unlock” the film, with directors Lucy Walker, Joao Jardim and Karen Harley submitting a fundamentally different version a few months later to the Sundance Film Festival. Waste Land went on to win Sundance’s 2010 Audience Award, and eventually scored a nomination for Best Documentary at the 2011 Academy Awards.
“Noah changed those filmmakers’ lives, and that was just pure Noah Cowan, to be so caring and committed,” says Charlotte Mickie, the sales agent who handled Waste Land. “It was tough love that made an incredible difference.”
On Jan. 25, Mr. Cowan, whose film industry career stretched from Toronto to New York to San Francisco to Los Angeles, died at the age of 55 after a year-long battle with glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer.
The highly influential programmer was a passionate and voracious consumer of cinema. Thanks to his championing of everything from international genre fare to Canadian movies to LGBTQ+ features, Mr. Cowan helped cement TIFF’s reputation as one of the premiere film festivals in the world. He was also essential to building TIFF’s flagship Bell Lightbox multiplex from the ground up, a monumental challenge that was unprecedented in scope, ambition and vision.
But Mr. Cowan’s journey with TIFF began at the very bottom.
Born July 22, 1967, in Hamilton, Ont., Noah Cowan grew up in a family backlit by the bright, alluring glow of the arts. His mother, Nuala FitzGerald Cowan, was an actress who appeared in such Canadian cult classics as David Cronenberg’s The Brood and Daryl Duke’s The Silent Partner. His father, Edgar Cowan, was a magazine publisher and co-founding investor of CITY-TV, as well as a one-time board member of TIFF, then known as the Toronto Festival of Festivals. Eager to entrench himself in the film world, Noah volunteered as a 14-year-old in the festival’s box-office department in the summer of 1981, eventually moving up to managing the organization’s print-traffic department, which helped ensure that films were on hand to screen.
“He had this incredible energy all the time, and back then, heading print traffic was like being my right-hand man,” says Piers Handling, the festival’s artistic director at the time, who would go on to lead TIFF as chief executive from 1994 through 2018. “He was essential to the mechanics of putting the festival together.”
In print-traffic, Mr. Cowan also had early access to the films that would make their way to programmers – it was just around the time of the VHS revolution – and quickly he was taken under the wing of veteran programmer David Overby.
“It was a true mentorship in a professional and personal way,” Mr. Handling recalls. “They were both bon vivants who loved going out drinking, late-night partying, and they hit it off despite there being an age difference of 25 or 30 years. Through David, Noah began travelling to places like Japan and the Philippines. I watched him grow, and you sensed his intelligence. He studied philosophy at McGill, so he didn’t come out of that traditional film-studies background.”
In 1988, Mr. Handling and his programming team started up Midnight Madness, a late-night slate of cult cinema that Mr. Cowan began to steer on his own the following year.
“The first year we ran it, I realized we were all too old for this and we needed someone with the smarts and ability to stay up till 2 a.m. every night, and that was Noah,” Mr. Handling says.
Under Mr. Cowan, Midnight Madness introduced Toronto audiences to the early work of Shinya Tsukamoto (Tetsuo: The Iron Man), Peter Jackson (Meet the Feebles), Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) and dozens more cinematic pioneers, with special attention also paid to such cult-movie icons as Dario Argento. The program quickly became one of TIFF’s most popular offerings, building a devoted audience and industry network at the same time.
“The ripple effects of his curation go really, really far,” says Colin Geddes, who attended that first 1988 edition of Midnight Madness for the premiere of Hellbound: Hellraiser II, and was so entranced that he kept returning, eventually co-running the program with Mr. Cowan starting in 1997.
“Those early days were risqué and dangerous in a lot of different ways. Noah programmed queer-positive cinema in a time when you wouldn’t see it in that arena. What people don’t realize today is how easy and accessible these kinds of films are now. We can watch RRR on Netflix. But back then, you had to do the hard work to find something and celebrate it.”
To that end, Mr. Cowan became an instantly recognizable presence on the international film-festival circuit, making easy friends along the way.
“One year we were together at the Berlinale and Noah knew of a party being held in the vast expanse of nothingness of Potsdamer Platz,” recalls Mr. Cowan’s fellow programmer Cameron Bailey, now TIFF’s chief executive. “We walked across grass and rubble, and along the way he introduced me to his friend, Michael Stipe. From REM. Now the three of us are trudging through this field to what would turn out to be an incredible party. Noah would surprise you all the time.”
At the same time that Mr. Cowan was working his way up TIFF’s ladder, he was getting increasingly busy with his side project, Cowboy Pictures. The New York-based distribution company 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. After the 1999 edition of TIFF, Mr. Cowan left Toronto to focus on Cowboy.
In 2004, though, Mr. Cowan was lured back to Toronto by Mr. Handling, who was in need of an artistic co-director to help program the festival given that he was busy with plans to fundraise and build the Lightbox. In his new role, Mr. Cowan went big on Canadian cinema, giving prime opening-night slots to such films as Deepa Mehta’s Water in 2005 and Zacharias Kunuk’s The Journals of Knud Rasmussen in 2006.
“Noah was the first person to see Water and insisted that it should open the festival, I found out later,” Ms. Mehta recalls. “He was supportive but also critical. He always questioned my scripts. It was irritating, but great.”
As construction on the Lightbox began in earnest, though, Mr. Cowan shot his hand up for an entirely new challenge, stepping away from the festival proper to become the artistic director of the new building. It was a responsibility that included everything from commissioning art exhibitions and screenings to overseeing engineering blueprints.
“How do you go from distributing these dinky little shorts that I made in the ‘90s to putting on a hard hat and taking a bucket elevator to head up the construction of a major building?” says filmmaker Guy Maddin, whom Mr. Cowan commissioned to create Hauntings I & II, an art installation that helped launch the Lightbox’s opening. “That represents a rotation of brain hemispheres that I would simply not be able to pull off.”
Mr. Cowan’s job came with immense challenges, especially with the Lightbox’s vaunted first-floor exhibition space. TIFF scored with its opening exhibition in 2010, a Tim Burton show on loan from New York’s Museum of Modern Art that attracted 111,000 paying visitors over five months. But subsequent efforts, including well-reviewed exhibits based on the careers of Grace Kelly, Federico Fellini and Mr. Cronenberg, failed to entice audiences in as large numbers. (In 2016, TIFF eliminated the majority of its exhibitions department.)
“The vision that he had for the gallery met with reality and it became too difficult to sustain, but it was great while it lasted – there wasn’t a model for that in any existing cinematheque,” says filmmaker Atom Egoyan, who produced an installation called 8½ Screens for the Lightbox’s opening. “He was able to champion filmmakers as extended visual artists. He saw things in a clearly auteurist perspective.”
After six years spent inside the Lightbox, though, Mr. Cowan was ready to lead his own organization. Which is when the San Francisco Film Society, which oversees the annual San Francisco International Film Festival, came knocking.
“He was looking for another challenge and to be honest I wasn’t at that point ready to step aside,” Mr. Handling says. “I was still in my late 50s or early 60s, and I wanted to see the building through its early stages. Part of Noah also wanted to get out of Toronto and back to the States. It was a shock, I thought he would stay for an indeterminate amount of time. But he wanted to spread his wings and be the CEO of an organization.”
Mr. Cowan left TIFF for good in 2014, running SFFILM as its executive director until 2019, after which he moved to Los Angeles to launch his own media consulting company. And it was there, alongside husband John O’Rourke, where Mr. Cowan was diagnosed in 2021 with glioblastoma. But ever the social animal, Mr. Cowan began a year-long farewell tour of sorts, hosting and visiting friends far and wide while he still had time.
“That final year was marked by a lot of laughter,” says Nuria Bronfman, a long-time friend and today the executive director of the Movie Theatre Association of Canada. “Noah had a huge web of friends and colleagues and was incredible about bringing everybody together.”
“He just couldn’t stand the idea of his friends feeling uncomfortable about him being so ill, so he made sure to put us at ease and reach out to us,” Mr. Maddin adds. “Never in my experience has a person died a more beautiful and loving death. He really did it right. It was well-curated.”