Is the Whistler Film Festival Canada’s answer to Sundance?

A shot from After Film School.

The close-knit festival may just be the most Canadian of them all

The Whistler Film Festival (WFF) is not the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), nor is it the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF). And it doesn’t pretend to be either. But the five-day event, held every December at B.C.’s premier ski resort, has found its niche in Western Canada’s cold hills as an ironically warm and uniquely Canadian affair.
“It’s like we’re becoming Canada’s Sundance,” says Paul Gratton, WFF’s director of programming, over lunch at West restaurant in Vancouver’s South Granville district. In a few hours, he’ll be on a plane to Toronto to connect with film distributors in TIFF territory. Gratton explains that there’s just enough time between the two festivals to provide ample breathing room for TIFF filmmakers who want to now premiere their works in Western Canada.
While WFF doesn’t shy away from courting these big releases—scoring, for example, the Canadian premiere of A Most Violent Year, starring big-name actors Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac—it’s likely local filmmakers who benefit most from the festival. This year, over half of the movies premiering are Canadian. For a festival open to international submissions, that’s unprecedented, Gratton says, and “a specific characteristic to Whistler you don’t find elsewhere.”
Take After Film School, a local production that will have its world premiere at this year’s WFF. Dozens of recently graduated Vancouver film students pitched in to create a mocumentary about life after film school—and the challenges of getting your idea off the ground. Now, WFF is helping turn that struggle into a success, not only by showing the film, but also by partnering with First Weekend Club (FWC), a non-profit that promotes Canadian film.
Following the festival, and the buzz it hopes to generate, After Film School will be made available for $10 through FWC’s new pay-per-view streaming service, This sort of arrangement, premiering a film online alongside its festival debut, is a first in Canada. And, Gratton says, a chance for After Film School’s filmmakers to make their money back—an otherwise unlikely scenario.
“For a lot of B.C. filmmakers,” Gratton says, “Whistler is just perfect.”