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Hot Docs president warns this year’s festival could be its last without more financial support | CBC News

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This year’s Hot Docs Festival could be the last without more support from government funding partners, said the non-profit’s president. 

Marie Nelson said the organization is still recovering from losses accumulated during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the two-year shutdown of the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema and the cancellation of the annual international documentary film festival, which returned in 2023. 

“We are now turning back to [the] government to say, yes it was great to provide some support during the pandemic, but let’s not think that the pandemic is over for us,” Nelson told CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Monday. 

The festival’s government partners include the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council and the Toronto Arts Council, according to the Hot Docs website. CBC News has reached out to all three for comment.

Simply re-opening the cinema doors was not enough after the pandemic, Nelson said, as audiences had to be rebuilt.

A significant part of the Hot Docs audience was people who were particularly vulnerable during the pandemic and “maybe the last folks to decide to go back to their regular habits as far as turning out for cinemas,” she said. 

LISTEN | Hot Docs president says festival’s future at risk

Metro Morning7:44Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, is facing extreme financial pressures

Marie Nelson is president of Hot Docs .

Many of the donations Hot Docs receives support projects, rather than baseline operating costs, Nelson said. For example, she said there are a certain number of union roles that need to be occupied in the cinema at all times.  

Though showing fewer films at the festival is one way to cope with funding constraints, Nelson said doing so would be a significant loss. 

“For us to cede that territory in a city that loves documentary as much as Toronto does, enough that it supported the world’s first documentary film cinema … would be an incredible loss,” she said. 

The organization also runs education programs for students across Canada and provides millions of dollars in funding to documentary filmmakers, she said.

Arts council in ‘close communication’ with Hot Docs

The Canadian Council for the Arts, one of the festival’s government partners, is carefully monitoring the situation at Hot Docs and is in “close communication” with the organization, said Lise Ann Johnson, acting director general of arts-granting programs at the council, in an email. 

She said the council recognizes the range of challenges being faced by arts organizations as they rebuild from the pandemic. 

“While the pandemic may be receding for many Canadians, the long-term impact of the pandemic on the arts sector continues to be felt,” she said. 

Johnson said Hot Docs receives an annual grant of $63,000 through the council. In the past, the organization has received funding for market development, digital transformation projects and to acquire specialized equipment, she said. 

“Unfortunately, the Council does not have the means to rescue individual organizations in financial difficulty,” Johnson said. 

However, she added that the council is working closely with organizations like Hot Docs “who find themselves in sudden financial difficulty, to provide flexibility and other kinds of support where possible.” 

The Toronto Arts Council provides Hot Docs with an annual $190,000 grant, said Kelly Langgard, director and CEO of the council. Hot Docs has received almost $2 million in funding from the council since 2000, she said. 

The council “has been clear that our grants have not been able to keep up with inflation,” Langgard said in an email. 

“Artists and organizations need more public investment so that they can continue to make Toronto the vibrant cultural city that it is,” she said. 

CBC News has also reached out to the Ontario Arts Council for comment, which is is also a partner of the festival, but did not get an immediate response.

Other festivals report financial issues

Hot Docs is not the only Toronto festival to report funding concerns in recent months. Programming for the Toronto Fringe Festival will be reduced by almost 25 per cent due to low attendance and a loss of financial support from a provincial grants fund, according to reporting by the Toronto Star

Last month, the Just for Laughs comedy festival announced it was cancelling its 2024 event because of an “unsustainable” financial situation, according to a company spokesperson.

Nelson said she thinks Hot Docs and other struggling Canadian arts organizations are likely facing common issues. Fundamentally, she said all organizations that rely on live events for significant parts of their business are being impacted in a similar way. 

“I think you could peel back the layers and say we are each facing very similar constraints,” she said. 

Despite funding concerns, Nelson said she is hopeful the festival will continue beyond its 31st edition, set to begin next month from April 25 to May 5.

“At moments like this, one of the things that distinguishes Canada is their support for arts and culture,” she said.  

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