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The Review/ Feature/

Remembering Bill Marshall

Festival Founder, Chair Emeritus of TIFF, and Canadian cultural giant

Jan 2, 2017

The family of Bill Marshall will receive friends at the Humphrey Funeral Home A.W. Miles - Newbigging Chapel, 1403 Bayview Avenue (south of Davisville Avenue) from 1:00-3:00 p.m. and 5:00-8:00 p.m. on Monday, January 9th. In lieu of flowers, gifts can be made to the family for 'Bill Marshall in Trust' for a purpose to be established in his honour, or a donation can be made in memory of Bill Marshall to the Toronto General Hospital Transplant Program or the Toronto International Film Festival. Condolences, photographs and memories may be forwarded through Bill's obituary page.

William (Bill) Marshall, Co-Founder and Chair Emeritus of TIFF, passed away on January 1 at the age of 77. It's impossible to overstate the importance of Bill's work to TIFF and to Canada's arts and film scenes.

In order to celebrate his life, we've gathered some reminiscences, images, and some of Bill's own writing and quotes. He was a cultural force for good, and he will be missed.

Forty-one years ago, Bill dreamed of a world film festival in Toronto. Against all odds, he and his two partners created the Toronto International Film Festival. Nobody believed anyone would show up, but 35,000 people did:

Back in 1978, Bill hired Wayne Clarkson to be the Executive Director of the Festival of Festivals. Clarkson has gone on to become a legend in Canadian film and television. Here, he shares some memories of the early days.

To be clear: the Toronto International Film Festival would not exist today were it not for a small group of outliers led by the irreverent, gregarious, charming wordsmith, marketing wizard, and film czar Mr. William Marshall. It was his leadership, vision, and spirit in those formative years that made it all possible.

I first met Bill and his business partner Henk van der Kolk in 1977 in Ottawa. I was running a small Festival in the nation’s capital and invited their film Outrageous, which had been a raving success at the Cannes Festival, to have its Canadian Premier at the National Arts Centre. They kindly agreed. A few months later, in January of 1978, I moved to Toronto, having accepted their offer to serve as the Director of the Festival of Festivals as it was then known.

As for why I wasn’t fired or arrested during my first Festival in the fall of ’78, I can only attribute it to Bill's outlaw spirit — and experience with City Hall.

The Ontario Censor Board wanted our Opening Night Film In Praise of Older Women cut by several minutes. Neither Bill nor I, nor the film’s producer Robert Lantos would accept cuts. Our solution? We sent one print to the Censor for trimming and brought an uncut print in from Montreal. Guess which one we screened? To make matters worse, I mistakenly had 2,000 tickets printed for opening night that Admitted TWO... The theatre only sat 1,700.

The police turned up 30 minutes into the film looking for responsible culprits. We were next door in the bar rejoicing in our survival. When he was told the police were looking for us, it was Bill Marshall who strolled confidently into the cramped theatre manager’s cubby hole, looked the senior officer straight in the eyes and stated: “My name is Bill Marshall, officer. What seems to be the problem?”

We got off with a slap on the wrist for allowing people to sit in the aisles.

From that night on — and over the subsequent eight years that I served as Festival Director — I was a committed and loyal admirer of Bill Marshall. And forever thankful that he didn’t fire me.

— Wayne Clarkson

The news of Bill's passing has affected people at all levels of Canadian society, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who weighed in on Bill's legacy on Twitter:

And speaking of Twitter, we took this opportunity to share some of Bill's wit and wisdom:

When Piers Handling attended the first-ever Festival of Festivals, he met Bill Marshall for the first time. He didn't realize at the time that the trip was also the beginning of the rest of his professional life. He joined the Festival in 1982, and he's been the Director and CEO of TIFF since 1994:

Where does one start with Bill?

Well, now we’ll never get to do the massive Scottish film retro that we jokingly talked about over the decades!

Scottish – the first key to unlocking the man. Smart, stubborn, good-natured, always up for a challenge, a natural disruptor. Think Grierson, another Scot, another shit disturber, another guy who got things done, who changed the cultural landscape in this country.

Bill first drifted into my line of sight when he and his producing partner, Henk van der Kolk, founded the Festival of Festivals. I made the trek down from Ottawa for the first edition and gorged on German cinema of the time: Wenders, Fassbinder, Herzog. Little did I know how much the Festival would change my life.

Bill and Henk were producing films at the time and a year later emerged with a spunky and energetic feature film called Outrageous! The film was invited by Wayne Clarkson, one of my best friends, to a film festival we ran in Ottawa. This screening changed his life; Bill hired him in year three to run the Festival. Wayne’s first job when arriving in Toronto was to get the bailiffs to remove the locks on the Festival’s offices. But Wayne can tell that story.

The rest, as they say, is history. A wonderful, full, eventful history, of an idea that turned into what we see in TIFF today. From the perspective of 2017, it is difficult to remember, or imagine, what a brave step it was to found a festival in Toronto. In hindsight, it was an obvious one. There were small film festivals in Stratford, Ottawa, Montreal, Yorkton. All modest, all well-run.

But Toronto was the centre of the English-Canadian film industry, and there was nothing here. Initially, the city was not that responsive. Money was tough to find. The media, except for George Anthony, were dismissive. Bill and Henk produced the first two Festivals on the back of their credit card. They went into debt. Angels flew to their rescue – but it was a near-run thing, until everything started to settle.

Bill was thinking big picture at this time. A Toronto-based film festival to — amongst other things — put an industry focus on the city as a production centre. An Academy, similar to that in L.A., of professionals from all skill sets, acting as an association representing the Canadian film industry, giving out annual awards.

The Festival was a beacon to the outside world, as well as a celebration of Canadian film. From day one it struck an uncanny balance between international and Canadian, high brow and low brow, populist and esoteric. A public event that also had an industry and media component. No prizes, and when one was invented it was voted on by the public.

Just as importantly, it acted as a locus for a generation who wanted to live and breathe film and cinema and the movies. The roll call of people who ended up passing through the Festival as employees in their early days is impressive: Michael MacMillan, Seaton McLean, Peter Mettler, Don McKellar, Brian Johnson, Helga Stephenson, Margo, Michael and Peter Timmins, Geoff Pevere. And a host of others who branched out into the industry.

Bill was always restless, full of ideas. He founded a film festival in Niagara to tie into the wine industry: the Niagara Integrated (!) Film Festival. And there was another focusing on Marshall McLuhan. He and Henk were trying to drum up interest in Trenton to create a festival in 2017. Two weeks ago I had a coffee with Bill as he had another idea he wanted to pitch to TIFF, this one about giving us more digital presence. Incorrigible! Irrepressible!

He was a curious and enterprising man. Always searching, imagining.

He created a space. A space for celebration, for connecting, for showcasing the best of contemporary cinema. He provided the foundation for what we have built on with TIFF.

The city; the country; filmmakers; the industry; all owe him a great, great deal. What a legacy!

— Piers Handling

Bill and Sari

Bill with his wife, Sari Ruda, at the 35th Toronto International Film Festival

Toronto Mayor John Tory also released a statement about the profound effect of knowing and working with Bill:

Bill Marshall was an artist, a dedicated Torontonian by choice, a TIFF founder, and most of all a friend. He always thought big and we were the winners thanks to his creativity and determination. More so than any of that he was wise and just plain fun to be with. He will be sadly missed and my heartfelt condolences go out to his wife Sari and the Marshall family.

Filmmakers and members of the film press also reacted to Bill's death:


Henk van der Kolk with Bill


Helga Stephenson with Bill

"I just thought that this city could have a great film festival. Most people said it’s a stupid idea, nobody will come."
— Bill Marshall

Last year marked the 40th anniversary of TIFF; Bill wrote this piece about the early years:

Forty years ago I thought it would be a good idea to start a major film festival in Toronto. Henk Van der Kolk and I were fledgling film producers, among only a half-dozen in the city. At the same time, I was also chief of staff to Toronto mayor David Crombie, and had formed a close friendship with lawyer Dusty Cohl. I took Dusty to Hy's Yorkville for lunch and told him I was leaving CIty Hall to go back to making films and, oh yes, to start an international film festival.

Dusty beamed and said he loved the idea. Not only that, but for some reason he had been to the Cannes Film Festival and knew numerous international film critics and distributors. This was music to my ears and I asked him to come aboard. When he agreed, I asked him what title he wanted. "Accomplice," he replied. Dusty stayed Accomplice until the end, and built an Accomplice Committee of passionate followers and friends who wore silver-plated pins in the shape of his trademark Stetson. The deal was that if you were lucky enough to be chosen to wear the pin, you had to be seen wearing it at all times!

Henk kept the operations of the Festival running as smoothly as a Swiss watch. I was the mouthpiece for all our extravagant claims and our constant battles with a skeptical Canadian media. When we went to Cannes, Dusty greased the staff at the Carlton Hotel and got us Table 1 on the Carlton Terrace every day at five o'clock to track down star-quality guests for Toronto. Dusty knew all the trade-press correspondents from Variety in Rome and Paris, and Screen International in London. They were invaluable allies and attracted distributors from across Europe who brought us films by Fellini, Pasolini, and Menzel.

Despite the chorus of doubters, we knew there was a savvy, cosmopolitan audience in Toronto that wanted to see great films that were simply not available in North America. They turned out in droves in the morning rain to see classic films from Greece, Italy, Cuba, and Czechoslovakia. No other city in the world has embraced so many other cultures so readily and harmoniously. We called ourselves the Festival of Festivals because we celebrated the best films from the best festivals in the world; now we've morphed into the Toronto International Film Festival, the most successful public film festival in the world. That could not have happened without Toronto's very international culture.

When Dusty died in January of 2008, I was quoted as saying "no Dusty, no Festival." It's still true today, and Henk and I are thrilled that the current leadership and board continue to keep his spirit alive — to fight to change the way people see life, through film.

A poignant final note: when Dusty passed away, the Carlton Hotel in Cannes took a full page ad in Variety. It was a photo of our table on the terrace, with Dusty's black cowboy hat and a single copy line: "We miss you."


Bill with actor Henry Winkler in 1977

Bill had strong support from some of the most legendary critics who ever lived. Including Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert. One can only imagine the conversation in this room was pretty incredible:


Bill's introductory letter from the programme book of the first-ever Festival of Festivals in 1976

Thanks for everything, Bill. We'll miss you.