The Whistler Film Festival (WFF), which kicks off this week, has always positioned itself as a haven for homegrown talent. But in Year 15, 'Canada's coolest film fest' has raised the stakes with a slate of prestige flicks earning plenty of Oscar buzz.
"Hollywood's found us," says festival co-founder Shauna Hardy Mishaw. "We're making in-roads, and that was always our intention."
The jewel in WFF's crown this year is the Canadian premiere of director Todd Haynes' (I'm Not There, Velvet Goldmine) romantic drama, Carol, a frontrunner heading into awards season that centres on the relationship between two women in 1950s New York.
"It's a major coup for us," says programming director Paul Gratton of nabbing the film for WFF's opening night. "I think it's the next step in the evolution of the film festival."
But the period piece isn't the only Oscar contender on the bill. Tom Hardy takes on dual roles as British gangsters, the Kray Twins, in Brian Helgeland's Legend, a turn that has thrust him into the best actor conversation. Then there's Trumbo, the true story of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, which has delighted audiences since premiering in September. Superstar comedienne Sarah Silverman's surprising and subtle turn as a downtrodden housewife who risks everything for a life of excess in Adam Salky's I Smile Back is yet another awards contender.
Gratton says placing Oscar fodder alongside lower-budget Canadian flicks is no mistake. "I've always used the big high-profile (films) to subsidize the riskier Canadian content," he explains. "I really believe that as a West Coast Canadian film festival, one of our key missions is to promote Canadian talent, and specifically British Columbian talent."
That's played out in 2015 with more homegrown content than ever — over 60 per cent of the program is Canadian. It's also spread to WFF's most high-profile piece of hardware, the Borsos Award for Best Canadian Feature. For the first time, the contest has expanded to include any domestic film that has already had its Western Canada premiere. Twenty films will compete for the $15,000 prize, up from six in past years.
"We are an international film festival, but Canadian filmmakers are at the heart of what we do — we elevate them through the Borsos competition and our project development program," Hardy Mishaw says.That focus on emerging local talent doesn't die in the screening room either. Gratton hopes to continue positioning the festival as the place to go for up-and-coming filmmakers looking for their big break.
"I'm always hoping that B.C. movies won't just be shown at our film festival but will actually garner distribution and make their way out into the world," he says.
And the industry should do well to take note: Last year's opening night film, The Imitation Game, went on to do "disproportionately well" at the Canadian box office, due, Gratton believes, in no small part to enjoying its Western Canadian premiere at WFF.
Last year's Borsos winner, the Quebecois Félix et Meira, is Canada's entry to the Academy Awards in the best foreign-language film category, despite being "basically bypassed by every other major film festival in the country," Hardy Mishaw says.
And with industry tastemaker Variety hitching its wagon to the festival in 2013, not to mention its timing on the festival calendar, WFF is becoming "the launching pad for awards season" that Hardy Mishaw first envisioned when Gratton came onboard in 2012.
"We're doing some things right and we have a vision and a purpose and we're serving what I believe is a need," she adds. "It's a very exciting time for the Whistler Film Festival."
What was more difficult to imagine for Hardy Mishaw when she launched WFF out of her condo bedroom with college friend Kasi Lubin in 2001, was just how far her little grassroots festival would eventually come.
"I can't say that it's been an easy journey, nor has it continued to be an easy journey, but I'm very proud of it, and I'm very proud of our amazing team and the amazing community that has continued to support us," she says.
The Whistler Film Festival runs until Sunday, Dec. 6. For the full schedule, visit www.whistlerfilmfestival.com.