Whistler Film Festival Combines Star Power, Canadian Talent

The west coast Canadian fest is allowing local films to shape their launch into the commercial marketplace outside of the star-driven Toronto orbit.

WHISTLER, B.C. - Not all Canadian filmmakers can get, or want, their films to have a world premiere at the Hollywood star-driven Toronto International Film Festival.

Toronto is double-edged for local directors, as getting their films into the glamorous Canadian fest with its A-list star power gets them noticed, but the attention is analogous to children crashing their parents’ party.

Instead, David Mortin, the director of Mad Ship, had newly-installed Whistler Film Festival programming director Paul Gratton book his Canadian immigrant drama into the Borsos competition; he says he was right to debut the film here.

“It really feels like Whistler is a festival on the verge of blossoming. It feels like a good festival to attach oneself to,” Mortin said ahead of the world premiere for Mad Ship, a Gil Bellows and Nikolaj Lie Kaas-starrer about a Depression-era Scandinavian immigrant on the edge of madness who builds a boat to sail out of the Prairie dust-bowl.

“There’s a lot more international attention. There’s a lot more of a Canadian focus,” Mortin added.

Whistler fired up its 2012 edition with Hollywood star power like Daniel Radcliffe, Rashida Jones and Twilight scribe Melissa Rosenberg.

But the west coast fest also gave local Canadian talent the space to help shape the launch of their latest films before they venture into the commercial marketplace.

That includes Toronto director Michael McGowan, whose latest film Still opened Whistler this year after an earlier work, One Week, was the first-night film here in 2008.

“We had good success with One Week after it opened Whistler. If we have the same box office success with Still, it will have been good strategy to have come here,” McGowan said of his latest film, which debuted in Toronto.

Besides Mad Ship, also competing in the Borsos competition in Whistler is Sean Garrity’s Blood Pressure, which bowed in Pusan; Martin Laroche’s Fair Sex, which debuted in Karlovy Vary; and the TIFF titles Still, which stars James Cromwell; Kate Melville’s Picture Day; and Home Again, by Sudz Sutherland and starring Tatyana Ali and CCH Pounder.

The strategy is adding star power to Whistler as local talent makes their way down what has increasingly become an essential catwalk for Canadian cinema.

As it happened, Gratton booked only six films into Whistler this year that screened in Toronto.

The strategy is to avoid Whistler appearing as on only a cousin like every other Canadian film festival to Toronto and its prestigious September gathering of world cinema.

Instead, Whistler is looking to launch films in its own right, so that film distributors look with a fresh eye on its lineup and directors.

Whistler also distinguished itself this year by, after years of efforts to court Chinese film producers, unveiling winners of its China Canada gateway for film script competition.

The three projects optioned for development by Chinese producers in Whistler were Butterfly Tale, by writer Heidi Foss and producer Marie-Claude Beauchamp; the romantic comedy Blush, written by Richard Bell and produced by Elizabeth Yake; and The Eddie Zhao Story, a true story by writer Guy Bennett and producer Raymond Massey.