If you ever decide to run a film festival in a small village near a city famous for its major film festival, you’d better have a few tricks up your sleeve.
The annual Whistler Film Festival (November 29-December 3) heads into its 17th year stronger than ever because co-founder and executive director Shauna Mishaw Hardy takes a strategic approach. First, “we don’t attempt to be anything like Vancouver International Film Festival,” says Hardy, on the line from the resort town. “They’re a buffet; we’re fine dining.” Then she reels off the stats: VIFF shows 350 films in 16 days; WFF screens 87 films in five days. VIFF draws 150,000 people; WFF takes 15,000.
But what WFF lacks in size, it makes up for with industry credibility. “The film industry loves to come to Whistler,” says Hardy, who is expecting 180 reps from major studios and film companies this year. “They’re shopping, picking up product. They are also looking to collaborate with creators, who may have the next big thing. That’s the environment that we foster,” says Hardy.
WFF’s late-in-the-year timing might also seem like a challenge, but Hardy plays it to the Festival’s advantage. “We launch on the exact date the award season campaigns begin,” explains Hardy, so WFF programs more Academy Award contenders than any small festival should be allowed. Last year, Carol enjoyed its Canadian premiere at the fest, which also featured La La Land and The Imitation Game. This year, Hardy predicts WFF’s opening film, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, will score the best actor Oscar for Gary Oldman’s “unbelievable performance” as Winston Churchill. “The majors see an opportunity to get marketing value out of our festival,” says Hardy. “They get great coverage for their award contenders, and in turn, we leverage their presence to showcase our Canadian and independent films.”
The festival received more than 1,000 submissions this year and, in the end, chose a lineup that is 67 percent comprised of premieres of Canadian features—more than any other Canadian film festival, according to Hardy. Noteworthy Canadian films include Jackie English's Becoming Burlesque, about a Muslim woman who becomes a burlesque dancer, and Pat Kiely’s fabulously cast Someone Else’s Wedding.
WFF also pulls above its weight with its annual Borsos Award for best Canadian feature. The $15,000 prize is Canada’s second largest cash festival prize for a Canadian Film.
About a week before this year's launch, Hardy let us get to know her a little better.
What most appeals to you about the work you do? I love movies. I always have. And nurturing talent, too, has always been at the heart of the Whistler Film Festival.
Biggest challenge of directing the festival? Resources. Running a cultural charitable organization requires a 'never take no for an answer' approach.
How many films do you watch a month? At least ten depending on the time of year.
Three films you are most excited about at this year’s festival and why? It difficult to identify one or two films that are my favourite. It’s like saying, ‘who’s your favourite children?’ That being said, it is gratifying to see that the Whistler Film Festival’s ever growing reputation as a cool film festival in which to showcase original work is growing well beyond our borders. The Canadian features are the best crop we’ve ever had with 20 vying for our coveted Borsos Award for Best Canadian Feature.
This year’s fest features 11 world premieres, 12 Canadian premieres, and 15 Western Canadian premieres. What’s your secret? Our director of programming, Paul Gratton, has a flare for programming and has really built a solid foundation over the past six years in terms of WFF being a place of discovery for Canadian talent and a launchpad for award season fare, and the two combined seem to complement and define us.
Most exciting development happening in the film world? The impact of technology and the evolution of multiple screens and platforms, and how filmmaking and content have become more accessible.
Biggest challenge the film industry faces right now? The biggest challenge is also the pace of technology which is having a direct impact on how audiences consume content.
Last time a film that is not in the WFF program really moved you? I loved the The Shape of Water, which I saw at TIFF. It’s the best feature creature I have ever seen.
Your three favourite films of all time? I love all types of films so narrowing it down to three is tough. But three favourites include The Sound of Music, The Pianist and Gladiator.
If you could have a dinner party with any film talent past or present, who would be there? I would love to meet Shirley MacLaine – her wit has always captivated me – and Robert Redford to discuss his vision for Sundance which I have always admired.
If you could excel at one aspect of filmmaking what would it be? (Acting, cinematography, directing, catering—anything goes). I would have to say writing. I have several writers over the years whose work truly inspires me. I am always moved by how they are able to create a full feature from their own imaginations.
If you didn’t have to worry about money or a job, where would you live in the world? That’s a loaded question. I would live in multiple places that offered sun, ski, adventure and cultural options, and on a plane of course as I would have to get there.
Favourite place in Whistler? The top of the mountains!
Best advice you’ve been given? Never pass up a free lunch!
You have three words to describe yourself. What are they? Resilient, resourceful and driven.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be? The way people treat each other.
What do you most enjoy doing for others? Connecting people. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.
What does a perfect day look like? Fresh snow and unlimited turns.
Name another organization whose work you admire. Film Independent.
What are you most proud of? Starting WFF from inception and watching it grow over the past 17 years, and my children, of course.
If you weren’t a film festival executive director, what other vocation might you have chosen? Ski bum. Just joking but it is tempting.