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Interview with Shauna Hardy Michaw, Co-Founder of The Whistler Film Festival

abstract:

What do you do if you happen to live in a small town with only one theatre that only screens one box-office blockbuster every one to two weeks? If you’re the red-headed dynamo Shauna Hardy Mishaw, you get your buns in gear and turn that paucity of celluloid vacuity into The Whistler Film Festival—Western Canada’s fastest growing cultural phenomenon, screening 80+ films (including top North American directors), $40,000 in prizes and commissions, and the country’s most innovative programming through the Filmmakers Forum.  All that and more in just five short years! Learn more about this vital regional addition to the world film festival circuit in this interview with the WFF Co-Founder and Executive Dirctor.

article:

April 17, 2007
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Introduction

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(or click each hyperlink "Part" below)

  • Part I: The Making of a Film Festival
  • Part II: Norman Jewison Tribute and Borsos Awards
  • Part III: WFF Year-Round Programs

Part I: The Making of a Film Festival

BB: This is Paula Shackleton podcasting for bookbuffet.com. Today I am speaking with Shauna Hardy Mishaw, the Co-founder and Festival Director of the Whistler Film Festival here in Whistler, BC. The Whistler Film Festival Society (WFFS) is a non-profit cultural and educational organization committed to promoting, developing and celebrating a strong film industry in Western Canada, and to presenting the best films from this region, Canada at large and around the world to our community.

BookBuffet: Shauna the WFF began in 2001. It’s always fascinating to hear how successful endeavors began. Can you tell us what germinative event inspired the creation of the WFF?

SHM: At the time that we started Whistler had one theatre. We were lucky if we got one film a week, sometimes we got two, and they were primarily box office hits. So we were really limited in terms of our access to independent film, and there was an appetite for it within the community. 

We said, “Wait a minute, why don’t we start a film festival?”  So we ended up partnering with Moving Pictures: Canadian Films on Tour for our first year and we presented twelve of their films. But we also presented a film that we selected called Ski Bums, which was a National Film Board Documentary. 

Oddly enough that film happened to be about a bunch of Whistler ski bums, that we all know and have grown-up with for many, many years and we had over 1,300 people come out for that screening --- it was our opening gala screening, and it turned out to be the largest attended NFB of Canada screenings ever. 

Our other screenings did well. I think there were 3,600 people total and of course 1,300 attending the first night, and we were like, “Wow, wait a minute. I think there absolutely is an appetite here. What do we do? What are our next steps?”

So the next step over the course of the next few years was to decide that we were not going to screen films selected by other programmers; we were actually going to program ourselves, and we started working with the Toronto National Film Group film circuit to gain access to distributors and films ourselves. We started a film submission process. We launched an industry event called the Film Maker Forums in the second year, and it has really grown from there.

It’s been quite a natural progression in several ways.  The first three years the other co-founder, Kasi Lubin and I, were really working on it as more of a passion of the heart, and basically doing it on a volunteer basis —of course having several other jobs so we could support ourselves. Then in the third year there was an opportunity to hire a professional programmer, we had expanded our board, we had expanded our business plan, and really kind of got off the ground.

So like any business, I really feel it took a good solid three years to get it off the ground, to make sure it was viable. At that point we got some funding commitments from the municipality. We also got some other corporate sponsor commitments, which helped to obtain some stability for our organization. 

Now going into our 7th year we have a presenting partnership with American Express right through to 2010. We have funding commitments from other corporate sponsors: Movie Gallery, Directors Guild of Canada, Bell.  We have funding commitments from the municipality again, and we’ve also formed a strategic alliance with the Canadian Film Center to offer professional development programs and to offer some of their programming to our audience. The idea is that down the road we will be able to set-up a training program similar to the Sundance Institute. That is what we are working toward now.

So definitely it has gone a long way, and who would have known standing at 2001 and looking forward that this is where we would be, and I wouldn’t be working in the closet of my second bedroom. Happy to be out of there, especially since there were a few of us in there. [Laughs] So it’s very exciting to see what is possible, and see that there is an appetite for film, there’s an appetite for development. 

People love to come to Whistler, which of course has always been one of our benefits—it’s a great place for people to network.  You can walk down the streets, you can connect with each other, you can be on a chairlift, you can be anywhere and business can be done, discussions can be made and things like that.  So that’s where it all began.

BB: The WFF itself runs four days around the beginning of December each year. This year you featured some new programs. Tell us about the programs and the participants: Filmmaker Forum, DOC Talk, Pitch Fest, and the feature film screenings.  

SHM: We have an industry event called "The Whistler Filmmaker Forum". BC has a strong film industry that equates to roughly 1 billion dollars. In Canada it is 3 billion total, and so we felt there was a big need to support the development of that industry.  So hence, the Filmmaker Forum is an access opportunity that we bring in international sales agents, broadcasters, professionals within the industry, so that filmmakers can have access to them.  We facilitate one-on-one meetings and things like that.

We had an opportunity this year to join forces with DOC BC, which is the documentary organization of Canada’s BC chapter to present an event called "DOC Talk". DOC Talk is an industry conference for Western Canadian documentary film producers that actually happened in 2003 and 2005, and we had an opportunity to move it to Whistler in 2006.  There is a strong appetite for documentaries. It is an important part of the film industry, not perhaps from a theatrical perspective, but from a perspective of broadcast, I guess primarily.

People are really excited about it, because they’re real stories. They can touch them and feel them and be part of them.  Surely Michael Moore had a lot to do with that with “Bowling for Columbine” and we’re seeing right now “An Inconvenient Truth” being nominated for an Oscar.  And while the film isn’t the best film in the world, the message and the content of the film is very intriguing for people.

So, we saw it as a great opportunity, and it worked out really well, and it ended up helping us to increase our industry attendance by forty-three percent this year.

BB: What was the attendance this year?

SHM: The attendance was 6,100.

BB: Wow that’s great.

SHM: …and I think just over 600 for the industry events. So, yeah it was great, really exciting to see about a fifteen percent increase over last year. So we’re really excited about that.

BB: And I’m sure the resort loves it because that translates directly into tourist dollars to them with hotel bed-stays and restaurant visits, and people doing activities…

SHM: Yes, for sure. Again, we live in a unique environment. We live in a resort, so it’s important to drive traffic to the resort. Events like this, similar to the Sundance Film Festival, draws people (not to the same vein) but the WFF draws people to Whistler. It’s great to get out of your comfort zone and meet people and come to a place like Whistler.



Part II: Norman Jewison Tribute and Borsos Awards

BB: The Norman Jewison tribute this year and his involvement with the Borsos awards must be high on your list of proud achievements. Can you speak to that, and other WFF initiatives that give you the most pleasure and satisfaction?

SHM: Sure. Just to give you a background we started a competition in 2004 named in honor of Phillip Borsos who was a Western Canadian filmmaker from British Columbia and he produced films – probably one of his most popular films was “The Grey Fox” and we really wanted it to have an independent spirit, and unique creativity with passion and drive. It was for Canadian film makers.  The idea being that six films would compete in a competition for a cash prize of $15,000, which is the second largest prize in the country for Canadian film makers right now. And it is co-presented by the Directors Guild of Canada – the BC chapter. 

We have a jury that selects the films, and we have a jury that judges the films. This year we were extremely honored to have Norman Jewison as the president of the jury, and we’d been working on trying getting him here for several years, and timing wise, it just worked out great. To have somebody like that with such an esteemed career and who is so authentically Canadian really spoke to the nature of the award. 

So that was thrilling, and also to be able to have a tribute to him to honor his work and to recognize him for what he’s done from our perspective was great… For me personally, being one of the co-founders of this event, to have him speak to what we are doing was certainly a highlight for me.  It was very inspiring. It was one of those teary moments.  He was like, “Wow, you guys really have something here, and I’m so impressed, and I’m so excited, and it’s so great to be in a place that really celebrates Canadian film and sets it at the forefront, rather than allowing it to be submersed among everything else." 

That is really what the vision of this organization was. So really that was one of the moments, those very special moments for us. And of course, who better to judge?  Also on the jury was Lisa Ray, the actress from “Water”, and Andrew Curry the BC filmmaker. Right now he’s got a film out called “Fido” which is doing well. It didn’t show here but it showed in Vancouver and it just premiered at Sundance. So that was cool.  But we just had such a good solid jury.

The film that won was called; “The Secret Life of Happy People” which is actually a film out of Quebec. That film has gone on to do really well at other events as well.  But again, for this young man who won this award – it’s a calling card, it’s a marketing opportunity, and filmmakersespecially Canadian filmmakers, need that because that is one of the reasons that the Whistler Film Festival exists is that we want to have authentically Canadian content. We want to ensure that Canadian stories are celebrated and seen. That is essentially the essence of this award.

BB: Can you give us some examples of some of the other jury entries that came in and perhaps which ones were popular here… any off the top of your head so that listeners can get an idea of the film titles and people.

SHM: OK. We’d have anything from "Mount Pleasant" and "Monkey Warfare", which are both BC productions, (Mount Pleasant is named after the Mount Pleasant area in Vancouver) by a group of BC filmmakers that are doing very well.  Certainly all of our Borsos film makers, of which there were six. We had Wyeth Clarkson with a film called, “Skater Life”.  That film just premiered at Sundance as well. So interestingly enough some of the films that are showing here are going on to Sundance, and there is sort of this perception that, we can’t have a Canadian premiere here, but you can actually have a world premier there, or a North American premier, and American [films] have to premier there.

Three of our Borsos films actually won for Best Cinematography.  So that was really neat. And oddly enough, strangely enough—Wyeth Clarkson is head of Telefilm Canada and he is with another breed of filmmakers. So that’s a filmmaker to watch out for. He’s got a long road ahead of him.

We ended up showing 91 films; approximately 50 of them are features.

BB: So you basically had the local “Cinema 8 Theatres” sewn-up with screenings in the afternoon and evening.

SHM: Yes. What we usually do is start them any time between 1-3pm so that people can enjoy the forum, or enjoy a ski, or go to work. The evening screenings are packed. The daytime screenings are popular.  But it is also set around the schedule of the resort because people who come here want to enjoy the surroundings. We don’t schedule anything around après either.

BB: You also had a race – a ski race.

SHM: Yes. We had The Celebrity Ski Challenge and Norman Jewison participated and I got to ski with him! So that was another highlight --- he’s a great skier, so that was really fun, and that is an event that we’re going to build upon. The funding for that goes toward our professional development program. So that’s exciting.




Part III: WFF Year-Round Programs

BB:  I wanted to touch upon the year-round programs that you offer here in Whistler as well: the Whistler Youth Film Workshop, the Features Workshop and Reel Alternatives.

SHM:  We’re also launching another program called the “Go West Producers Lab”, which is partnership with the Canadian Film Center. That will happen in April. It is an opportunity for eight producers to work with senior people within the film industry that can help with their projects, and hone their talent and their skills.

The idea being is that all these programs do several things: they build capacity -- they offer opportunities for professional development. We have run the feature script writing workshop for a few years, I think this will be our third year. 

We will select four scripts to work with. The senior writer-director last year was Frank Bourg and Lynne Stopkewich – who is best known for, “Kissed.” She is Canadian, she sits on our board, and it ended being in Cannes so that was great. She really knows what she’s doing. We’re watching these scripts that hopefully will be made into features. The idea is that we’re helping to incubate this work.

The kids program we run in conjunction leading up to the festival and the idea being to help them to make a short film, but also encouraging kids to watch films as opposed to just watching television, but to watch educational films.

And then “Reel Alternatives” is a monthly screening series that runs, it’s running right now from Feb 7th and every second week, we’ll be showing six independent films. Two of them were recently Oscar nominated. So it’s an idea that went back to the beginning to offer independent films, because otherwise, even though we have a new 8-plex in Whistler, we’re still getting the box office hits, which is great, and there are some great films, but again it’s nice to experience something with a different flavor...

BB: Absolutely, to feel like we have to travel down to the city to “The Fifth Street Cinemas” or something smaller that Independents operate through.  Yes, it’s thrilling for residents to be able to experience that right in our own backyard – sophisticated film watching. 

What staff have you got now, and with all of the growth you’ve experienced, how are you handling things – I’m sure with the wheat there is some chaff?

SHM: Well there are two of us that work full time on all of our events and programming and development. Then through out the year we have different contractors that will be anywhere from nine months to six months to three months to a week, depending on when we’re up in full force during the festival when we’re up to about 30 staff. This year I think we had 143 volunteers helping us to host the event. From that perspective in terms of looking at the organization our budget from where we started to now is ten times, so we’ve certainly grown significantly.

BB: Now there is an interesting story that heard that demonstrates your dedication and sheer drive on everything. I think you were pregnant one year when you had the festival and did you deliver your baby immediately before or immediately after?

SHM: No that was last year, 2005 and it was ten days before. So he attended the opening gala, his first public event and there were eleven hundred people at it. He slept through most of it of course. But that was a bit of a crazy year – don’t do that. I think I was in denial right up until it happened.

BB: How do you balance family life with a busy career?

SHM: You know I think that’s a really important question. Certainly I make it a priority to be home at a certain time, and I make it a priority to leave at a certain time. Within the idea of balancing home and work, there is also yourself in there too. just try not to get too busy, and say “No” to certain things. As women particularly, I think we take on too many things. And I have really in the past year, found I am just enjoying my son so much that I don’t want to miss anything, and I am already missing things by being at work.  I didn’t take any maternity leave.  

So it’s important to have that family time and to really be able to manage your time well, and prioritize and look at your week and do what you have to do, and then go home and shut it off. Because at the end of the day I always go back to that saying, “You aren’t your work…”  

BB: We’re coming up to the 2010 Olympics. What plans do you have in the works for [the lead up to] 2010?

SHM: Well we’ve started a program already since two years as part of something called, "The Legacy Program." It’s called “Whistler Stories,” and each year we commission four BC film makers to produce a short film about a Whistler-And-Area story that has some of the Olympic themes in it: sport, culture, the environment, but that also celebrates something from this area. To date we’ve produced seven films. So I guess we’ve got [three] more years to go. We’re excited about that. We premier them during the festival, but we also show them at Celebration 2010, which is an event that happens here in February.  So once we’re done the program, we’ll put them onto a compilation DVD and people will have an opportunity to purchase them as a fun part of Whistler.  

Another way would be to really showcase some Canadian talent at that time, because there really are a lot of people from all over the world here, and they don’t necessarily know the kind of talent that we have.  So we’re working toward something like that.

BB: So that sounds excellent, and I think I’ve covered all the questions on my list. One thing I might ask you is if you had any suggestions for books to film coming down the pike that our listeners could maybe keep an eye out for and grab that book before the film comes out.  

SHM: Gosh there are just so many. I’m backtracking here, we were talking before the interview about "Little Miss Sunshine" and I think it’s worth reading the Little Miss Sunshine: The Shooting Script (Newmarket Shooting Scripts Series) and Product image for ASIN: 1557047707watching the film... it’s just an interesting story, not only the actual film, but the story about how the film was produced. Now there is an example of an independent film that debuted at Sundance and it has now got that young actress a nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  So it just goes to show that stories that aren’t necessarily mainstream can have a big bang and an impact and it’s such a heartfelt story that it should give a lot of filmmakers a lot of hope and inspiration.

BB: The interesting thing that that brings up is to encourage book groups, for whom this broadcast is directed to, to dip into different genres – not necessarily female protagonist driven works of fiction but also nonfiction, screenplays and plays as interesting forms to read, to understand and to discuss.  

SHM: Yes. You never know what you’ll find.

BB: We’ll definitely take your Little Miss Sunshine suggestion back. Well thank you Shauna it has been great speaking with you.

SHM: Thank you.

BB: We’ll look forward to the next Whistler Film Fest.

SHM/BB: Thanks

  • (WFF photos courtesy of WFF site)
  • Kasi Lubin is Co-Founder and Secretary for WFF
  • Bill Evans is Director of Programming for WFF
  • Jeanette Miller is Publicity Manager for WFF
  • Angie Nolan is Filmmaker Forum Manager for WFF

 

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