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Montreal’s World Film Festival escapes shutdown, while other festivals jockey for turf

Whatever critics may say about Serge Losique, everyone agrees that he’s unstoppable. The 87-year-old founder of Montreal’s World Film Festival (WFF) has again avoided the collapse of his annual summer event, this time by barely making the Aug. 1 deadline for a $31,000 deposit on a tax debt of nearly $500,000.

In recent years, Mr. Losique has overcome a number of end-times scenarios for the festival he started 42 years ago. On the eve of the 2016 edition, for instance, most of his staff quit en masse, and Cineplex withdrew its seven promised theatres, leaving him with one. Somehow, he scraped through.

Revenue Quebec chased Mr. Losique through the courts, gaining an injunction from the Quebec Superior Court that would have shut down the festival if the payment hadn’t been made. The tax agency said it had made a similar demand in 2015, which Mr. Losique ignored. It also revoked his licence to operate a commercial enterprise; the founder ran two more festivals without it, and is now preparing a third.

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“They gave you a chance,” a Superior Court judge told Mr. Losique. That’s a terrific piece of judicial understatement. Please, Mr. Taxman, let me pay a small deposit on money owed when I’m 87.

Mr. Losique is now in a characteristic scramble to pull a 12-day festival together at the last minute. As of late last week, there were no films or theatres listed on its website for an event that starts Aug. 23.

The turmoil at the WFF has had negative effects on the image of Montreal’s fractured festival scene. When programmers for other events go looking for films abroad, they sometimes have to clarify that they are not that Montreal film festival.

The WFF also played an indirect role in scotching the idea of fusing film events with overlapping mandates. In 2004, Telefilm Canada and Quebec’s Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC) stopped funding Mr. Losique’s event and invested in a startup festival that they hoped would absorb the Festival de Nouveau Cinéma. The merger didn’t happen, and the new shindig was a financial bust that died after one year.

And speaking of Montreal’s crowded festival landscape, I wonder why the city needs two animation events. Why, too, is the Festival of Films about Art, which mostly shows documentaries, a separate concern from the Montreal International Documentary Festival? Fewer organizations means higher visibility, less overhead, and less competition for sponsors.

Each festival has a different history, of course, as well as its own ruling personalities and self-image. All of those factor in a continuing conflict between long-established Pop Montreal and the Mile Ex End festival, which sprang up last year.

Both run in September, and are pitched to an indie music crowd. Mile Ex End headlines with Broken Social Scene; Pop Montreal’s five-day schedule opens Sept. 26 and includes feature appearances by Bill Callahan and SOPHIE.

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Mile Ex End, however, is a corporate creation, beamed into a trendy corner of the city by La Tribu, an entertainment company that is partly bankrolled by high-profile entrepreneur Alexandre Taillefer. Pop Montreal is a not-for-profit organization that built itself up slowly and has deep roots in the scene.

Not surprisingly, Pop Montreal smells an interloper, and is finding it harder to find corporate sponsors. Dan Seligman, the festival’s artistic director, summed up his new competitor as “a generic corporate interest trying to cash in on whatever buzz or reputation Mile End has.” La Tribu CEO Claude Larivée, at the announcement of his event’s second run, said “I think there’s room for everyone.”

In any case, Mile Ex End seems to be going through an identity crisis. Instead of building on last year’s single music weekend, it has split into three weekend events: Music (Sept. 1 and 2), Laughs (Sept. 8) and Oktoberfest (Sept. 15). Comedy seems an odd choice for expansion, given the birth of a new comedy festival this year and the continued good health of the huge Just For Laughs. An Oktoberfest crowd is surely a different slice of humanity than the one that shows up for Broken Social Scene. Mile Ex End seems to be hedging its bets, and possibly blurring its brand.

Meanwhile, Mr. Losique’s brand at WFF is becoming clearer than ever, unfortunately. Perhaps he needs a new word to describe his harum-scarum event: “festival” has too many associations with carefree revelry.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Coeur de Pirate would perform at this year’s Pop Montreal.
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