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What's next for the Whistler Film Festival?

Executive director Shauna Hardy Mishaw talks about 2016's results and 2017's plans

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According to its just-released final report, 2016 was the Whistler Film Festival's (WFF) most successful year yet in terms of activity, with 86 films — 67 of which competed for $154,500 in cash and prizes.

The report also found that attendance was up six per cent over 2015 to 13,993 over the event, which took place from Nov. 30 to Dec. 4. This included a 12-per-cent increase in film-screening attendees and a 17-per-cent increase in participants at WFF's Industry Summit, which brings filmmakers together with skill mentors, producers, studios and funders.

"We've just wrapped our 16th edition and we had very positive results," says WFF executive director Shauna Hardy Mishaw.

"Along with our screening numbers I'm about to announce three more deals next week, three more films got distribution because of the film festival. And we already know that three of our musicians from the WFF Music Café (to promote B.C. musicians) have been signed."

And then there are the films. The makers of the explosive musical La La Land, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, agreed to give its Western Canadian premiere to WFF as its opening night gala.

The film has gone on to win seven Golden Globes, eight Critics Choice Awards and has received a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations.

For a small festival to have a Hollywood film premiere of this calibre, and others such as Lion and 20th Century Women — though none were world premieres — is a very big thing, Hardy Mishaw says.

From $17.5 million invested in the festival since it began in 2000, she estimates $100 million in economic activity has been created, both in Whistler during the festival and well beyond its five days, when the deals made here become films, or when film artists of various types grow their careers.

"Since 2011, we've been measuring our direct economic impact, which is now at $5.2 million (in 2016). That doesn't include the additional $350,000 that we invest in marketing that generates over 20 million impressions (online), or the $5.2 million in PR that we delivered," she says.

Adding this all together, the full economic impact of WFF was $10.7 million, Hardy Mishaw adds.

"That's a huge return on investment, when the festival costs $1.5 million a year to produce," she says.

"That is an important thing to think about, when you're thinking of the cultural economy, what the economic impact is.

"What a lot of people don't realize is that beyond this kind of five-day thing we're doing, we have a different proposition that we've created where we're a driving force in this creative economy, particularly in British Columbia and Canada."

When it comes to the much larger Vancouver Film Festival (VFF), Hardy Mishaw describes WFF as fine dining compared to VFF's "buffet."

"We don't have the capacity to offer what they do, nor do we aspire to," she says.

"We are more like the Sundance Festival model and if you look at that, it is built on investing in talent."

This, she adds, fits in with how Whistler has developed in an artistic sense.

"It has evolved considerably in terms of the cultural landscape by local artists. Then it was championed by the arts council, which is Arts Whistler... it was elevated by the Cultural Olympiad and the Squamish Lil'wat Cultural Centre, then the Audain Art Museum and the Cultural Connector (arts and culture trail)," Hardy Mishaw recounts.

While sports and outdoor activities have grown into a year-round proposition, so has arts and culture.

"At one time we had to fight to get arts and culture into the 2020 strategy for Whistler. It wasn't a priority. Now cultural tourism has been recognized as a major cultural driver... now you take the festivals and everything has a cultural piece to it. Why? Because that is what connects people," she says.

Her points are delivered with a sense of urgency, Hardy Mishaw agrees.

At the heart of this is WFF's budget. The festival lost $100,000 in sponsorship between 2015 and 2016, though she says that was later recovered. Hardy Mishaw says she and her band of extremely dedicated staff and volunteers fostered the festival's growth last December with fewer resources.

They had also not recovered from the investment several years ago into the refurbishment and upgrade of the Rainbow Theatre, which Hardy Mishaw says lost them hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Then further trouble struck during the 2016 festival.

Problems with the software in the WFF's online and onsite tickets sales system made it impossible for people to purchase tickets online, and a scanner-system failure meant they could not fully gauge audience numbers. The overall problem led to a $50,000 loss, Hardy Mishaw says. She says she cannot discuss the situation further, owing to legal considerations.

A call for donations in late December to help mitigate the problem led to over $4,000 being donated.

Then WFF fell a few weeks behind in paying some of their staff hired for the festival, though Hardy Mishaw said this has now been sorted out.

"We have had to stagger payments," she says.

"We need some investors, that is the bottom line. It takes money to make money."

All in all, it has been stressful.

"There is an urgency... In order for us to survive we have to keep that cultural investment going, but where is (that investment) coming from?" Hardy Mishaw says.

"The majority is not coming from (Whistler). Not only are we attracting the money from outside, we're attracting people here who are coming to the resort and investing money. It's all good. If Whistler is putting in $436,000, they are getting a 24-time return on the investment, if you look at what our output is."

Of course, all this has made her think about the next few months.

"What we have to look at, and what Whistler has to decide, is — is it valuable? (By Whistler,) I mean the community. It's the Whistler Film Festival — it's not like you're going to move it to Squamish," she says.

"We've created what we believe is a valuable brand. It certainly has a lot of notoriety in the industry. If you talk to anyone in the industry, it's considered Toronto, then Whistler, right? It's the second destination you have to attend if you're in this industry in this country."

She adds: "As a resort, Whistler is thriving right now. Here we are again, back at Ground Zero. Every year we're starting over... When you wonder every month if you're going to make payroll because you've still got to bring in one more sponsor, it's tough. The sponsorship landscape is really tough in this day and age. It has changed enormously. Every entity in this town is feeling it."

Hardy Mishaw wants the next chapter of the WFF story to be about financial stability and the expansion of its 12 professional development programs in order to support the wider Canadian and, eventually, international film sector and to diversify what the festival is.

"Our survival is dependent on diversification, and that is what the new business unit is about," she says. "It's about building capacity for our talent programs and getting seed funding for the next three years and then diversifying our other programming.

"We are looking at expanding our adventure film series and doing an outdoor summer cinema program, so I can keep my staff. It's a very challenging proposition to work like this and have 2,000 alumni. When you have 2,000 alumni you want to champion their stories as much as possible.

"The plan we have, everyone is engaged (companies and community partners). I have to convince them to stay at the table and say 'Hey, we need to diversify.' I need to hire an operations manager. I cannot manage 58 staff (during the festival) and do what we're doing. It's an impossible task."

So, to this end, there are upcoming meetings planned with potential sponsors.

Despite the 18-hour days at festival time and the uncertainty of finances, Hardy Mishaw describes moments that inspire her.

"It has been an amazing journey for me," she says.

"This year, sitting with Luke Davies from Lion and across from him was Jonás Cuarón (who co-wrote Gravity). The level of talent we have brought to this town is, to me, the most inspiring thing.

"At the Women on Top Breakfast, I realized we were taking on gender parity and the storytelling around women and children.

"I was very moved, and I realized what we were doing was a much bigger proposition than throwing a five-day event."

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