Hot Docs Festival’s Future Appears More Dire Than Ever After President Marie Nelson Exits

The future of Hot Docs Film Festival, one of North America’s largest dedicated to documentaries, is not looking bright.

Less than two months after the Toronto-based festival temporarily closed its flagship theater and laid off a portion of the organization’s staff due to “urgent financial challenges,” just the latest in a series of economic distress signals from the organization this year, Hot Docs has revealed that president Marie Nelson has resigned.

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Her exit comes one year after the former exec at ABC News and PBS joined the festival. On Tuesday, July 9, Hot Docs issued a forward-looking statement about her contributions without providing any reason for the exit. Interim executive director Janice Dawe and managing director Heidi Tao Yang will now lead the struggling organization.

“We are proud of the work Hot Docs has accomplished with Marie at the helm and are confident that the groundwork she has laid during her tenure will assist us in realizing our full potential,” Hot Docs board of directors said in the statement.

According to sources who did not want to be named, Nelson did not relocate to Toronto full-time from the U.S., which bothered members of the Hot Docs staff. Sources also said that Nelson’s background in corporate America did not make her the right fit for president of a non-profit organization. Hot Docs declined to provide additional comment beyond its statement.

Nelson’s departure isn’t exactly shocking given the financial and staff turmoil that Hot Docs has been in for the last several months. On March 25, Hot Docs artistic director Hussain Currimbhoy left the organization just four months into his tenure. The was preceded by 10 of the fest’s programmers abruptly exiting their posts following allegations of workplace toxic behaviour and grave mismanagement.

An internal letter dated Feb. 20 and addressed to the Hot Docs board of directors and senior management, which was obtained by the Toronto Star, states that the programmers’ workplace had been turned upside down due to Currimbhoy, who had stints at Sundance, Sheffield DocFest, and the Melbourne Film Festival.

“We have individual stories and experiences to share, which all speak to a pattern of disrespect, dismissal and degradation by artistic director Hussain Currimbhoy and supported by senior management,” the letter allegedly stated.

During a press conference in March, Nelson said, “We understand that our union is far from perfect, but I also know that the only way we can create a more perfect union is if we do it together, and so I will continue to work to try to earn that trust and hope that (the programmers) will come back, and if they don’t come back this year that they’ll come back next year.”

Nelson went on to issue an “urgent appeal” for more funding at that time. “I’ll be completely honest with you: we’re struggling. So much so that there’s a possibility this festival will be our last. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that’s not the case. Can you help me? While I explain a bit about the crisis Hot Docs is facing, will you consider making a quick donation today, to keep us going over the next few months?”

That came after the Canadian government declined to provide funding for the doc fest in the federal budget unveiled April 16. The budget added more $88 million in funding for the screen sector, including $17 million over three years for the larger Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

“The federal government’s decision is putting the future of an important theatre and cultural hub at risk, despite ongoing calls for support from our community,” Hot Docs said in a statement following the government funding announcement. “Hot Docs requested a couple million in emergency support from this budget, a fraction of the amount allocated for others.”

While the doc fest’s financial situation is dire, the internal war that transpired behind the scenes earlier this year was a seismic blow. Losing 10 seasoned programmers one month before the 31st edition of the festival, which took place from April 25-May 5, was devastating news for attending filmmaking teams.

“Eno” producer Jessica Edwards said she was initially “super nervous” about going to the Toronto fest.

“I wasn’t sure what it would look like logistically,” Edwards told Variety in April. “I wasn’t sure how it would feel in the theaters. I wasn’t sure about the tech team and hospitality and the sort of machine that works to get a filmmaker to a festival. We didn’t hear from the festival for a couple of days after everything went down and then we got an email and it was reassuring and welcoming.

According to fest organizers, the 31st edition of Hot Docs had an average per screening attendance that came close to pre-pandemic levels and box office revenue exceeding its target by 12%. But in spite of that success, Hot Docs closed its flagship Ted Rogers Cinema on June 12 for three months and laid off a portion of its staff in an attempt to fight a deficit estimated to be over $2 million.

On June 18, Hot Docs’ board of directors co-chairs Robin Mirsky and Lalita Krishna stepped down from their positions. Documentary producer and Hot Docs board member Ina Fichman also left the organization last month. Currently, the festival’s board of directors is made up of three people: Nicholas de Pencier, Kevin Wong, and Lydia Luckevich. The trio, according to a Hot Docs’ statement, is expected to “effectively and efficiently navigate the critical financial obstacles facing the organization over the upcoming months.”

Creating a sustainable future for Hot Docs seems, at this point, like a task for superheroes, not mere mortals.

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