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The Whistler Film Festival and the Sundance ambition



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"With that prize they’ve gone a long way towards making their festival an attractive destination for small Canadian filmmakers... some unknown Canadian filmmaker – our next Stephen Soderbergh – might choose to premiere his film at Whistler. And it’s a snowballing thing. If there’s some track record of successful stuff coming out of Whistler then it’s all the more attractive for somebody to go there the next time."

Johnson says the Whistler Film Festival’s strength will lie in being specialized. They may not have the population base needed to rise to the profile of a large metropolitan festival, but the flipside is that size can be equal parts benefit and downfall.

Though Sundance doesn’t have a large population base it draws its size from its "proximity to the American industry," Johnson says, the biggest in the world. And while Bessai waxes positive about Sundance, Johnson’s outlook is not so sunny.

"I wouldn’t like to see Whistler turn into Sundance," he stated. "Sundance is not a lot of fun. The worst bumper-to-bumper traffic I’ve ever seen in the world is at the Sundance Film Festival." (Strong words from a Toronto dweller). "It’s bursting at the seams. It’s outgrown its facilities. It’s outgrown the town.

"Whistler has a long way to go," he added, "but I think they’re building it on the right scale."

The right scale. It’s not exactly the Robert Redford-esque stratosphere of unlimited potential. But sensible can be sexy. Finding a niche can be exciting and admittedly, shooting for Sundance may be shooting a bit too high.

One state to the east, in Telluride, Colorado, another film festival has occurred yearly on Labour Day weekend for the past 31 years without so much celebrity sighting and bumper-to-bumper traffic. But don’t let the lack of pomp and blast fool you. In a Sept. 11 article rating the best of the world’s intimate festivals Globe and Mail critic Liam Lacey had Telluride front and centre, citing such influential discoveries over the years as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet , Michael Moore’s debut documentary Roger and Me and kung-fu ballet Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon .

Programming director Bill Evans says that seems more Whistler’s style.

"We want Whistler to be Sundance in the way of discoveries, but realistically we know we’ll never match it as a market," he remarked. "If there’s a festival we should model ourselves after it’s more the Telluride festival, kind of a ‘boutique’ festival. A quieter festival but equally esteemed."

Even more importantly, the Telluride festival has managed to maintain a sense of community, Evans notes. Something that has been pushed into the background at the rock ’n’ roll celebrity zoo that is Sundance.