Former festival director Alan Franey reflects on 26 years with Vancouver International Film Festival
After 26 years as festival director with the Vancouver International Film Festival, Alan Franey has had enough of the grind of 60- to 80-hour work weeks for six months of the year. So after VIFF wound up this year, he announced that he’s stepping down as the senior staffer responsible for artistic and executive functions.
In an October 14 phone interview with the Georgia Straight, Franey said that he wants to remain with VIFF in a programming role. “I want to be clear that I’m not leaving,” he emphasized. “I hope I’m going to be working with the festival for a good long while yet.”
Franey expressed satisfaction with preliminary attendance figures for the 2013 festival, saying they exceeded expectations. He wouldn’t reveal the numbers at this point, but sounded pleased by how many people showed up after a substantial drop last year.
“We were at a slightly smaller capacity this year,” he said. “We didn’t use [the cinemas in] International Village for the entire period. It was only for the first 11 days.”
VIFF organizers also had to react to this year’s closure of the Empire Granville 7 Cinemas and the Ridge Theatre, which took two key venues out of commission.
“It wasn’t simply a matter of changing theatres,” Franey said. “The theatres simply don’t exist anymore. In my tenure here, there’s been a few dozen theatres that we’ve lost permanently, erased from memory.”
Franey has no difficulty rattling off the casualties: Paradise, Caprice, Plaza, Varsity, Ridge, Hollywood, Bay (also known as the Starlight), Capitol 6, and Royal Centre, to name a few.
This year, VIFF staff had to convert auditoriums, such as the Vancouver Playhouse and the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts, into movie theatres, which involved purchasing screens and other materials.
“Everything is going digital at the same time,” Franey noted. “So it’s not just making the investments once. You’re having to reinvest in a new paradigm every time you do it. I’m glad it worked.”
In addition, VIFF was able to screen films at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts at SFU Woodward’s.
As he reflected on his quarter century as festival director, Franey cited the creation of the Vancouver International Film Centre at 1181 Seymour Street as one of his proudest moments. Housing the 175-seat Vancity Theatre, it opened in advance of the 2005 festival.
He described the annual festival as an ephemeral combination of “having just given birth and having just had your child move away, never to be seen again”. The film centre, on the other hand, is a permanent legacy to the city.
“We’ve got a great staff,” he said. “It took surprisingly long for Vancouver to register fully enough that the film centre was part of the film festival’s operations. I still run into people who don’t know the two things are related.”
Franey noted that there are now more than 50 film festivals in Vancouver, with many focusing on specific countries. He recognizes that these are a labour of love for the organizers, and he professed admiration for anyone who tries to get people to turn off their computers and television sets to attend movies. However, he also expressed a fear that too many narrowly targeted festivals can balkanize audiences.
“I’m a big believer in the universality of our festival, in contrast to some of the others,” he said. “I think that’s why it has its special position, and I hope that doesn’t get watered down with too much competition, because something very special would be lost.”
In recent years, Franey has seen an explosion in the number of documentaries, in part because they are easier to make with mobile cameras. This has helped create a surplus of good films, as well as a surplus of inferior ones.
“Now anything that is happening in the world is being documented,” he said. “Filmmakers and journalists can put material together and tell the truth. If they’re good at it, they can tell the truth in ways that otherwise might be missed.”
He also noted that movies made by Canadian directors have attracted large audiences at VIFF in recent years. “As much as we might love them ourselves, no one went to Canadian films and no one went to documentaries when I started with the film festival in the 1980s,” Franey recalled. “It was really, really tough. You needed to do it almost out of a sense of purpose and charity, but that’s no longer true. They’re our biggest sellers. They’re the most popular films in the festival.”
Franey pointed out that it’s relatively easy for people to stay home and download movies for free. “That’s what a lot of young people do,” he said. “So we have to work harder and harder to achieve the same results. I think that we’ve now proven this year that our tools are in place, our theatres are in place, our approach is sound, and the audiences are back.”