Interview: NIFF’s Program Director Tony Watts On NIFF And His Role as a Film Programmer


Before buying a ticket to see a film at one of the biggest festivals in the world, did you ever ask yourself how or who brought this film for your consideration? While you enjoy the screening of one of the highly anticipated films, let’s say, at the Toronto International Film Festival, there was a big drama going on behind the scenes in order for that particular film to be able to become a part of the festival. During the Niagara Integrated Film Festival, Tony Watts, NIFF’s Program Director, kindly agreed to answer a few questions related to the subject, I am sure, you all would like to know about.

MOVIEMOVESME: Can you talk about your role for the NIFF and also for SunDance and many other festivals?

Tony Watts: Well, I was the programmer for the first three years of the Toronto film festival. So, I’ve known Bill Marshall for 40 years. And my job around the world has been to launch PTV film channels and program film festivals. And three years ago Bill and I were both in Dubai, at a film festival and he asked me what I was doing and I asked him what he was doing and he said he was putting together this film festival in Niagara region. And I said: “Well, I am going to SunDance”. Now, Dubai was in December, so I said “I am going to SunDance in January and I can get you some films!” And he said, “Okay”! So, in the first year we were here at Landmark Cinemas and 4 different vineyards, like we are at now. And we showed a number of films which had a food connection, documentaries for the Foodies. So people would come to vineyards, which is a very unique experience, to sit down with a paired meal: food and wine, and then have a film which started about 9 o’clock. And then have a guest come: a director, or an actor to come and talk. So, that worked very well in the first year. We had a nice selection of films from around the world. We had screening in Landmark, screenings in vineyards. And we also had a thing called Film Feast, where people could drive around in a van and stop in vineyards and have a tasting and then watch some of the shorts. Shorts have always been very important here. Where we have Niagara Rises, which supports local film-makers, short film-makers. And we have a whole Canadian section of new Canadian films. And then we had international selection of shorts this year from a festival in France called Clermont Ferrand, which is one of the biggest short-film festivals in the world. So, now we have been doing this for 3 years and we’ve got more and more into Saint Catherine and now they… the first performing arts centre has become our home. It opened last September and it’s a very creed cinema. And so most of our screenings this year have been a packs, as they call it at performing art centre. 28 features, all of them shorts, all of them international premieres. So, we choose. Bill just said to me “go and find some great films”. So, we have a mixture of Canadian films, documentaries, films for the food and wine proud and international premieres. And in first year we had a world premiere with animation film from Malaysia, we had the world premiere of a film from South Africa, which sold out. And everybody enjoyed the experience. Last year we had diary of a teenage girl, with a Paulie coming and we had a first connection with Disney, by showing “Inside out” as a Canadian premiere. And yesterday we showed a preview of “Finding Dory”. So, it’s grown. Every festival has its own unique signature and this one is very specifically wine and movies in conversation.

MOVIEMOVESME: A film programmer has his own challenges. What’s perceived as good by someone might not fit everyone’s taste. So how do you manage this?

Tony Watts: Yeah, that’s always a problem. I mean, Bill has never second guessed my selection, but we always have a mixture of English language films, foreign language films, some animation, shorts. Yeah, I mean even when there are some films that in the end you take, because they got stars in, noticeable starts, that will draw an audience in. Sometimes, if it’s not as good as you would like, but sometimes, you know, the audience is just enjoying the experience. So, it’s always a mixture between trying to get a good film, but I always looking for a great films. So, we choose films on the basis of, you know, is the director coming, is it a premiere, is it suitable for this audience? This audience is an audience, which is primarily plus 50 retirees to live down here. So, we have comedies and dramas. We don’t really have many horror films or comedies that don’t travel. So, yeah, there is… You’re always looking … And all the films we turned down, in their own way, they think they’re good films, but for our audience, our specific audience here, they don’t necessarily work. But I’ve never come… I have never had somebody walk out of a film and said: “Oh, that was crack”. I have never had anybody do that. So, they’ve always… either they are being very polite, or there is always something that people find in a movie that they like. Or they just like the experience of going to a film in the vineyard with a famous Italian actress. Or going to see “Finding Dory”, you know, with their kids. So, it’s a mixture. You are trying to… What you trying to do is… Film-festivals around the world get anything from 200 to 300 films at each festival, each of the major festivals around the world. And a lot of these films never go anywhere else, except to another film festival. So, what we try to do is bring films that otherwise would… They’d never see it here. And sometimes it works and people remember that and people talk about films that they have enjoyed, which is a reason for them to come back again.

MOVIEMOVESME: Also this year Niagara Integrated Film Festival collaborated with the Italian Film Festival, where you actually brought the film with Claudia Cardinale and Raoul Bova and Sarrah Jessica Parker. So, I wonder, it’s not about the quotient that brings Claudia Cardinale here, but mainly introducing Italian films to the audience?

Tony Watts: Yeah, it’s a combination of two things. I have known Claudia Cardinale for 30 years. In the first Toronto Film Festival, we invited Sergio Leone and Claudia Cardinale to come, but they weren’t able to. But Sergio Leone did send all of his complete, Italian language versions of “The Good, the Bad, The Ugly”, “Once upon a time in the West” and they have never ever played in the complete Italian versions in a cinema since the first Toronto Film Festival in 1976. And… So, it was all in Italian and everybody enjoyed it and, of course “Once upon a time in the West” now is one of Claudia’s favourite films. It’s the one she is well known for. It’s now regarded as a classic. It’s always in the top 100 films of all time. As her other films, like “The Leopard” and “Rocker”, and her brothers, like “Professionals” which he really likes in across full in “Eight and a half”. So, it’s a combination of we… each year we are looking for a tribute person and this year I suggested Claudia Cardinale. At the same time there was a conversation going on to bring, to extend the existing Italian Film Festival, which is now in its 5th year, south to Niagara, because it has marched over Québec, Born, Toronto, but never actually came to Niagara. So, that was an opportunity. So, Christiano and I chose the films, and it all worked out very well.

MOVIEMOVESME: What is the challenge when you bring, for instance, an Arabic or perhaps an Italian film which has no subtitles?

Tony Watts: That’s always a problem, but, you know, I am… Couple of years ago I went to 12 film festivals a year, starting with SunDance and finishing in Dubai. I would go to one in Busan, in Korea, I would go to one in Mali, I would go to one in France, I’d go to SunDance, I’d go to one in Greece and they all have English Language subtitles, because the international cinema is English. And so anybody who makes a film, always has English language subtitles. For small films, like locally Canadian films, for something made here, they don’t have the money to do that. Sometimes we’ll do that, you know, but if we find the films at other film festivals, which we premiere here was no premieres and in all cases when the film is invited, it’s part of standard regulations that has to be in English language subtitled version. So, if they couldn’t produce one, and we still like the film, we’d probably do that ourselves. What is much harder is trying to get a film which is already has been in lots of festivals. Once you take a film what happens is a lot of time is something is brought to Sundance in January by May or June they pretty much have sold them. If they have not sold them or they have not got a Canadian or North American Distributor, it is very hard for them to make a decision about where they will put their films.  And our festival does not have 320 movies so, there is no completion each night. You can choose what to see. Now some people do that because they want exposure in Toronto. If it is summer film and it’s ready – we play it. I start looking for films for next June September in Toronto and and then in December in Dubai.

MOVIEMOVESME: What do you think small festivals need for big exposure?

Tony Watts: I think they need to have a unique character. The unique character about this event is where we have a meal, wine, a movie, a guest. Also, we don’t look for films every other festival in North America was played. We look for the films that were played overseas which we don’t think will ever come here. So, international range is different. We focus a lot on local Canadian talents. So, all Canadian films that have premiered here have been sold out. All Niagara Shorts are excellent. So, there is uniqueness about Niagara Integrated Film Festival on one hand is it’s small independent film festival,


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