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Whistler Film Festival sees attendance bump

Attendance rose 2%, ticket sales up 12% at this year's fest

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The 2017 Whistler Film Festival, held Nov. 29 to Dec. 3, saw bumps in both attendance and ticket sales during its 17th edition.

Total attendance over the festival's five days was 14,207, a two-per-cent increase from last year. That included 7,623 film-screening attendees and 2,448 special event attendees. There were an estimated 4,000-plus unique visitors.

Ticket sales, meanwhile, increased 12 per cent compared to 2016, when issues with the festival's online ticketing software slowed sales.

"There were more attendees, the theatres were packed, the vibe was good, and people really loved the films," said festival director Shauna Hardy Mishaw. Featuring 87 films from 15 countries, this year's WFF opened with Second World War drama, Darkest Hour, which ended up taking the festival's audience award. The Focus Features film is already in the awards conversation, with Gary Oldman earning a Best Actor nod this week for his portrayal of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill at the 75th Golden Globe Awards.

"That was a really big win for us to secure a major studio film. The fact that it did so well and ended up winning (the audience award) is really good news for us going forward," noted Hardy Mishaw.

WFF has become known over the years as filmmaker-friendly event that places particular emphasis on mentoring emerging Canadian talent. This year's event saw 468 talent program attendees and 948 industry delegates.

Last month, the festival launched a crowdfunding campaign to expand its development and industry immersion programs for Canadian filmmakers. At press time, just over $2,000 of the $150,000 target had been raised. The campaign, which can be viewed at indiegogo.com/projects/whistler-film-fest-help-launch-canadian-filmmakers, closes Dec. 22.

Securing a major funding source is essential to the next stage of the festival's development, said Steven Gaydos, executive editor at film industry magazine Variety, which has partnered with WFF for the past six years.

"I still think of (WFF) as working on its potential, and going to the next level is really about finding support from patrons and sponsors," he said.

Gaydos pointed to the Palm Springs International Film Festival as an event that could serve as a useful model for Whistler.

"If you look at Palm Springs... they have a patron and that patron has some other really wealthy friends, and they help provide a financial base for the festival," he noted. "Most community festivals that I know that are really thriving... is because they have a patron, someone who's passionate about it."

With the Audain Art Museum's addition to the resort's cultural landscape, Gaydos feels Whistler is primed to develop into a more diverse tourism destination.

"If all Whistler is is a place where people go to ski and have beers, that's fine. It can be that," he said. "But I admire Shauna and (programming director) Paul (Gratton) for saying, 'I think this community has an opportunity to be connected to Hollywood, to be connected to Toronto and Montreal, and to be connected to filmmakers all around the world.'"

According to a 2015 Economic Impact Assessment of the festival, WFF created $5.2 million in economic impacts for B.C., with $2.9 million of that spent in Whistler. It generated $1.1 million in tax revenues that year, including $103,000 for Whistler.

But the true value of this homegrown event goes beyond mere numbers, according to Hardy Mishaw.

"We need these storytellers in our culture. They're critical to the well-being of our culture as much as they're critical to the well-being of our economy," she said. "I think that having cultural events like this is really important to the fabric of this community."

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