The 15th edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival started off with a (head) bang in Toronto Thursday night, showcasing the Canadian premiere of Sacha Gervasi's "Anvil! The Story of Anvil." Taking the stage of the historic Winter Garden to introduce the film, Hot Docs' Executive Director Chris McDonald proudly declared the festival "the finest collection of documentaries anywhere." With 174 films from 36 countries screening over 11 days, Hot Docs has grown into the largest documentary festival in North America, blasting out of the shadow of the Toronto International Film Festival to become a major industry event in its own right. The festival now welcomes some 2,000 delegates and 80,000 filmgoers, double the numbers from just three years ago.
McDonald talked with indieWIRE prior to the festival's opening night, giving particular notice to some new additions to the event. "We have just launched the $4 million CanWest–Hot Docs Funds for Canadian filmmakers and our Doc Shop Videotheque is going digital this year," said McDonald. The Doc Shop, the largest digital documentary market in North America, offers buyers access to over 1,400 titles. It goes online after the festival ends, giving year-round access to registered buyers around the world.
The Doc Shop is just one aspect of Hot Docs' effective intergration of market and conference events alongside screenings. The Toronto Documentary Forum, for example, is a separately accredited event that schedules 30 pre-selected project presentations made by their producers and commissioning editors. But this ambitious organizing hasn't come at the expense of more traditional goals. "Like any good festival, the quality of the films and the professionalism of the event is critical if you want to continue to build your core audience – which we do," said McDonald. "Our main priority is to maximize the festival experience for each of our constituents. And, as always, we hope to help successfully launch any number of new films into the marketplace, and help filmmakers with projects in development find international co-production support thru the Toronto Documentary Forum and other market events."
While Hot Docs' popularity as an event continues to build, its 15th edition comes after a highly-publicized lull in documentary box office returns. "We are hoping very much that 2007 was an anomaly and we will see things trending upwards this year and next," said McDonald. He cited Yung Chang's Canadian-produced doc "Up the Yangtze" as a example. The film, which opened in Canada earlier this year, has grossed a rather astounding half million dollars before its release stateside next week. "It is still screening theatrically in Toronto two weeks after its national broadcast," said McDonald. "It should do extremely well in the US."
Another Canuck-themed doc that bodes well for the fate of documentary box office is "Anvil!" The American produced film follows Toronto's Steve "Lips" Kudlow and Robb Reiner, who formed the metal band Anvil in their teen years. After over 25 years of not-quite-success, the boys continue to passionately aim for fame and fortune. Director Gervasi manages to delicately balance silly (and often hysterical) fun and surprising emotion, making the film very accessible to a wide range of audiences. After a well-received premiere at Sundance, the boys' homecoming was met with overwhelming responses. "This film belongs to you guys," Gervasi told a crowd of uproarious cheers. Gervasi, who met the band as a teenager, found it easy to express his motivation for the project. "They have the same drive and joy they had in their 20s and it was so fucking inspiring," he said.
"Lips" proudly met his hometown crowd by admitting he never expected Gervasi's call. "Dude, we thought you died or became a lawyer," he said as he greeted the director on stage. "Who the hell's gonna care about us?" Apparently, a packed audience at the Winter Garden. Energetic standing ovations met the band's stage appearance, and, perhaps even more so, when their supportive wives took the stage. But "Lips" was skeptical about the possibility of the movie "Anvil"'s success. "If we become more famous for the movie... Listen man, it was our music that brought Sacha to that changeroom in 1982. Don't forget that!" His bandmate Reiner wasn't as vocal, but he made sure to take advantage of the opportunity. "Robb just told me to tell everybody we got shit here to sell," said Gervasi after Reiner whispered in his ear. His wife spoke up to make sure her husband was understood. "He means t-shirts," she yelled into the audience.
"Anvil" co-screened with short film "Green Porno," co-directed by, as Hot Docs programmer Sean Farnel proclaimed, a "huge Anvil fan," Isabella Rossellini. The film is actually a series of very short one-minute films that each star Rossellini dressed in various bug costumes hilariously explaining the methods by which insects copulate. The films, created with cellphones or similarly small screens in mind, will be presented before Hot Docs' Special Presentations series throughout the festival. Rossellini and her co-director, Toronto-based Jody Shapiro proudly introduced the first edition of the screenings. "I wanted people to say - I didn't know that about bugs," Rossellini announced with a smile. But she also less happily discussed the diminished state of short film distribution. Noting the popularity of the format from cinema's conception up until the 1960s, she remarked that "now, they don't have any possibility of distribution." Perhaps if the "demi-gods of Canadian metal" end up helping reinvigorate documentary revenues, bug sex can do the same for shorts.
Hot Docs continues through April 27th.
Peter Knegt is the Assistant Editor of indieWIRE and is based in Canada. He also writes a blog hosted by indieWIRE.