The Canadian Film Fest went virtual in a hurry — but now it's ready for a close-up
Wendy Morgan's drama "Sugar Daddy," featuring writer/actor 𝗞𝗲𝗹𝗹𝘆 𝗠𝗰𝗖𝗼𝗿𝗺𝗮𝗰𝗸 in a star-making turn as a desperate musician on a dark ethical road, opens the 2021 Canadian Film Fest, which runs April 1 - 18 on Super Channel Fuse.
Ashleigh Rains and Bern Euler believe they have a hard-won pandemic title to claim, after successfully transforming their 2020 Canadian Film Fest from an in-person celebration of Canuck indie cinema into a virtual one.
As they prepare to do it a second time — the 2021 edition runs April 1 to 18 on Super Channel — they reflect on how it feels to be accidental trailblazers.
“I’m going to put a stake in the ground and say we were first in the world,” festival director Rains says in a Zoom interview. “We’re not aware of anyone else who had to transition before us. And we did it very quickly.”
Euler, the CFF’s founder and executive director, adds: “There were no YouTube tutorials to help us along. We had to just invent everything. Ashleigh and I knew what we wanted. We just had to figure out how to get there.”
Salvation came from Super Channel, which agreed to run the fest’s films on TV and computer screens from coast to coast, instead of the big screens at Cineplex’s Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto, where the CFF normally plays.
As the pandemic persists, Rains and Euler are about to go virtual for a second time: the 2021 Canadian Film Fest, its 15th edition, will screen an eclectic series of nine features and 30 shorts on Super Channel Fuse on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, starting April 1. There will also be online panel discussions, Q&As, master classes and Zoom parties.
Actor/screenwriter Kelly McCormack is the star and writer of "Sugar Daddy," a drama directed by Wendy Morgan that is opening the 2021 edition of the Canadian Film Fest on April 1.
The opening night film is the Toronto premiere of “Sugar Daddy,” a drama of artful ambition and moral expediency starring Kelly McCormack (TV’s “Letterkenny”), who also wrote the screenplay. Colm Feore co-stars.
Other highlights of the feature slate include Andrew Chung’s racially themed drama “White Elephant,” starring Zaarin Bushra and set in a 1990s Scarborough neighbourhood; Vanya Rose’s sexually charged mystery “Woman in Car,” starring Hélène Joy (TV’s “Murdoch Mysteries”) and Liane Balaban, based on the Edith Wharton novel “The Reef”; Jeremie Torrie’s small-town possession horror “The Corruption of Divine Providence,” starring Ali Skovbye and Tantoo Cardinal; and Thomas Rinfret’s “The Last Villains, Mad Dog & the Butcher,” a rollicking documentary about Quebec’s legendary Vachon family of pro wrestlers. (Details are at canfilmfest.ca.)
The festival is proving even more popular than before in its virtual incarnation. Rains, who is also head of programming, had to hire three programmers this year to handle the nearly 400 feature and short film submissions, double the usual number.
Audience numbers aren’t available, but the reach of the fest has significantly expanded thanks to Super Channel’s cross-Canada service. For 2022, they’re planning a hybrid in-person and virtual event, COVID-19 permitting.
This time last year, Rains and Euler had no intention of setting any cinematic benchmarks. They were preparing for the 14th edition of their defiantly Canadian indie film fest, which was supposed to run from March 24 to 28, showing 10 features and 28 shorts at the Scotiabank Theatre.
You know what happened next: a plunge into pandemic lockdown just 10 days before their festival start date forced an immediate cancellation. But almost immediately after, they started thinking of ways to revive it.
“I started talking on a Tuesday with Don McDonald, the president and CEO of Super Channel and, by Friday, we had a signed contract,” Euler says.
“We both understood that we had to do this quickly, because everything was in place on our side. And if we waited even one more month, films would start disappearing because of pre-existing distribution deals or uncertainty about the future.”
The revived 2020 Canadian Film Fest screened over three weekends on Super Channel in May and June last year, supplemented with Zoom cocktail parties that fostered the film festival vibe. The Zoom parties were so popular, Rains says, that the closing night party ran until 4:30 a.m.
Why was it so important to them to keep the CFF going? It’s a non-profit event and, like most non-profits, it’s perpetually strapped for cash. Euler says he was afraid the initial cancellation of the 2020 CFF would bankrupt him, since the fest had already spent most of the sponsorship money it relies on for survival.
The reason for the determination to carry on speaks to why Euler started the Canadian Film Fest in 2002 (there were a few years in hiatus between then and now): he wanted to have a place where Canadian filmmakers could screen, schmooze and brainstorm together.
“I found that over the years, the fact that we are Canadian holds us back. Which is to me insane. Filmmakers, especially emerging artists, don’t have — or they didn’t when we came on the scene — a place to congregate and shake hands and network and watch each other’s movies and let the general public watch. That’s one of the reasons I want to keep it going, because this is not a money-maker.”
Filmmakers appreciate the love and return the loyalty. “Sugar Daddy” actor/screenwriter McCormack has taken two previous features to the CFF, “Play the Film” and “Barn Wedding,” and she’s grateful.
“I got my start at the CFF, a festival that prioritizes building community alongside showcasing films,” she says via email. “I have no doubt that Ashleigh Reins and Bern Euler will see their second year online as an opportunity to broaden that community. The CFF has always been accessible, invested in filmmaker’s futures and, most importantly, fun as hell.”
(This column previously ran in the Toronto Star.)