Situated in the Coast Mountains just a little over two hours north of Vancouver, the ski town of Whistler, B.C., is probably best known as being a major site for the 2010 Winter Olympics. But for a few days every year, if you look beyond the snow covered slopes and icy peaks, you'll find one of the most important film-related events in Canada.
The annual Whistler Film Festival (WFF) takes over the winter resort town during the first weekend of December every year, attracting filmgoers, filmmakers, actors, and media from Canada and around the world. While the festival is bound to be compared to the indie film incubator Sundance -- if only for its similarly ski-friendly location -- for now, the B.C. film fest maintains a distinctly laid back Canadian vibe that's hard to find anywhere else. Established in 2001, the festival has increased in size and scope in the years since, growing from a modest 13-film lineup in its first year to close to a 2012 lineup that included nearly 80 features, documentaries, and short films, many of which were Canadian and world premieres. Festival organizers expected upwards of 9,000 people to attend the 2012 WFF.Phillip Chin/WireImage
Previous festivals have featured a who's who of Canadian filmmaking talent, including directors Bruce Macdonald, Ivan Reitman, Atom Egoyan, Philippe Falardeau. Guy Maddin, and Norman Jewison. The fest has also attracted its share of stars from at home and abroad over the years, including Donald Sutherland, Michael Shannon, Jay Baruchel, Patton Oswalt, and Sarah Gadon. This year was no exception; the 2012 WFF featured talks with "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe and rising comedic actress Rashida Jones ("Parks & Recreation," "Celeste and Jesse Forever").
But it's not just about the star power that Whistler attracts. The festival provides emerging directors and producers with a wonderful backdrop to showcase films that deal with important topics. Themes of environmentalism, social justice, and women's rights were par for the course this year. Docs, indies, and first-time features make up the bulk of the lineup, a makeup that has turned the fest into a highly active and thriving market for films. You've heard of elevator pitches? How about a gondola pitch? The ski resort setting means that film deals are often struck on the chair lift between runs. WFF also recently showed up on the Hollywood radar, thanks to a partnership with U.S. movie trade magazine Variety, whose editors formally recognize up-and-coming international screenwriters at the fest.
While the fest may be attracting big talent, big deals, and big audiences, the fledgling event still has some major hurdles in its path. It's mountainous locale is both a blessing and a curse. While the ski slopes and chalets are a big draw for some, the long drive from the city limits potential attendance and public access to the fest. The film festival also lacks a dedicated facility to screen films at, with movies spread out all over the village in a hodgepodge of gallery screening rooms, converted conference centre ballrooms, and small cinema screens. Plans are in the works to renovate and upgrade an existing movie theatre into a state-of-the-art screening venue, however the project still requires significant investment before it can move forward.
The time of year in which the Whistler Film Festival is held is also a bit of a detriment. The December fest date does give the fest the drop on Canadian award season hopefuls like last year's "Monsieur Lazhar," "A Dangerous Method," and "Cafe de Flore," but it also means that many of the other films set for WFF have already played at other more established festivals earlier in the year. A film festival often gains popularity and attention after a movie that premiered there goes on to do well during the major award season, but WFF's year-end date makes that sort of exclusive premiere nearly impossible.
With its focus on emerging young filmmakers and rollicking film market the Whistler Film Festival is already an important event on the Canadian film calendar, but the addition of a dedicated screening facility and a possible date change could help the fest reach the next level. For now, if you find yourself in the middle of that winter sports enthusiast/cinephile Venn diagram, then WFF is definitely worth the mountain trek. It's not the Canadian Sundance quite yet, but it very well could become that in the near future.