Noah Cowan, Former TIFF Leader and Cinema Champion, Has Died at Age 55

Cowan shared his enthusiasm for world cinema as festival programmer, film journalist, visual arts curator, SFFILM executive director, and non-profit consultant.
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MARCH 14:  Executive Director of SFFILM Noah Cowan introduces the festival program for 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival at Dolby Cinema on March 14, 2018 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images)
Noah Cowan introduces the festival program for 2018 San Francisco International Film Festival
Getty Images

The film community is mourning the loss of film festival executive Noah Cowan, who died January 25 at his home in Los Angeles after a year-long battle with Glioblastoma multiforme. He was 55.

Cowan was an enthusiastic booster of independent film, a celebrated film programmer who rose from 14-year-old volunteer to co-director at the Toronto International Film Festival (1988-2002, 2004-2008), cofounder of the non-profit Global Film Initiative in partnership with the Museum of Modern Art (2002-2004), Artistic Director at TIFF Bell Lightbox (2009-2014), and executive director at SFFILM (2014-2019).

In recent years he consulted for film, media, and visual arts organizations including IFC, the Telluride Film Festival, and Centre for the Moving Image in Edinburgh.

Born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1967, Cowan earned a degree in philosophy at McGill University that informed the way he looked at the world. He was that rare cinephile who not only was a festival programmer who loved to discover new talent, but also loved to observe and dissect the film industry.

While rising in the programming ranks at the Toronto International Film Festival in the early ’90s, he co-founded and ran indie distributor Cowboy Pictures (1993-2001), a source of great pride. For two years, Cowboy programmed The Screening Room, New York City’s downtown exhibitor; it also collaborated with Quentin Tarantino’s Rolling Thunder label, bringing back the midnight-movie experience for a new generation.

Cowan didn’t hesitate to publish his views. He was a contributing editor to Filmmaker Magazine (1994-2004) and wrote erudite film journalism for Sight & Sound, Take One, Out Magazine, Utne Reader, and IndieWire, among others. He also posted observations on his own website as he rethought the ways in which exhibition and festivals needed to change in the 21st century.

Many of us got to know Cowan on the festival circuit, where he was as enthusiastic about sharing his favorites over espresso after the 8:30 AM Cannes screening as he was in the wee hours of the morning over vin rouge at the Hotel Grand. Every year at Cannes, I made sure to sit down and get his overview of the festival trends, both in terms of film themes and industry patterns. He was brilliant.

Cowan’s interests ranged far and wide. In his programming years, he was not limited to one special area of expertise; he tracked films from all over the globe as well as genre fare. When he moved from TIFF co-director to run the festival’s new exhibition space Bell Lightbox, he not only programmed films but also curated many visual art and film-related exhibitions focused on David Cronenberg, Grace Kelly, and Indian superstar Raj Kapoor, among others.

Among the hundreds of filmmakers Cowan has championed throughout his career are Gregg Araki, Catherine Breillat, George Butler, Jem Cohen, Guillermo del Toro, Atom Egoyan, David Gordon Green, Hirokazu Kore-eda, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Guy Maddin, Lucrecia Martel, Deepa Mehta, Michael Moore, Mani Ratnam, Boots Riley, Isabella Rossellini, Patricia Rozema, James Schamus, and Johnnie To.

In 2014, Cowan became executive director of SFFILM, San Francisco’s premiere film cultural institution and home of the San Francisco International Film Festival, an artist development initiative, and a high-impact local education program. He held the position for five years before moving to Los Angeles, where he launched a media consultancy that allowed him to share his experience and business acumen with non-profit, film festival, and venture capital clients around the world.

Cowan is survived by his husband John O’Rourke, parents Nuala FitzGerald Cowan and Edgar Cowan; brothers Brian FitzGerald and Tim FitzGerald; and nieces Meagan, Brendan, Garrett, Zoe, and Julie FitzGerald; aunt Betty Boardman; and cousins Patrick Boardman and David Cassidy.

Cowan requested that remembrances be made in the form of contributions to The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film and Toronto’s Cinematheque. For questions or information, please contact or

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