Hot Docs’ Shane Smith on shorts, VR and world premieres

Realscreen caught up with Hot Docs' incoming programming director Shane Smith to discuss his goals for the Toronto festival, his background in short films, making virtual reality accessible to audiences, and competition for world premieres.
August 21, 2015

In October, Shane Smith is leaving one Canadian institution for another as he exits the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) after five years to take the reigns as programming director for Hot Docs.

The director of special projects at TIFF is succeeding former Hot Docs programming head Charlotte Cook, who stepped down from the role in late May, and describes his relationship with Hot Docs as a “lifelong engagement.” He first began attending the festival when it was an industry-focused event run out of the Metropolitan Hotel. Now, Smith will head up a team of about six programmers alongside newly appointed associate director of programming Sarafina DiFelice.

If there’s one theme in his career, Smith says, it’s being a part of building something and helping it grow. After serving as director of the Canadian Film Centre’s Worldwide Short Film Festival for almost seven years, Smith joined indie Canadian broadcaster Channel Zero for a two-year programming stint. He also worked as a short film programmer for the Sundance Institute and as an executive producer with content marketing agency Spafax Canada before joining TIFF in 2010 as director of public programs. He became director of special projects in 2013.

Smith caught up with realscreen to discuss his passion for short film, goals of making virtual reality more accessible to the Hot Docs audience and his thoughts on competition for world premieres.

How do you feel about leaving TIFF?

Seeing how much TIFF’s grown over the past five years, it’s been fantastic, as well as things like the new programming we introduced. TIFF in the Park has become a summer institution in the city, and we were a key part of the programming for [city-wide art exhibit] Nuit Blanche. Also, things like Books on Film has become an important part of TIFF, and by no means was I the one making those happen single-handedly – it really takes a village to make great things happen. Being part of the team here and that energy, growth and dynamism has been really inspirational.

Throughout your career, you’ve been very involved in the world of shorts. Are documentary shorts an area you’re going to be pushing for at Hot Docs?

I have a great passion for the short form. It’s an art form in itself, and documentaries have always been a key part of all the programming I’ve done in whatever role, whether it be shorts or  the Australian festival I founded and co-directed, or buying for Air Canada or programming here for TIFF in the Park. Great art is made in the margins and I think the short form offers so much of a platform and an opportunity for filmmakers to experiment and to establish themselves. It’s definitely something I want to bring to Hot Docs and focus on. I want to continue to make sure that shorts remain a core part of programming.

Is there a certain organization that’s really informed your knowledge of documentary? 

When I moved to Canada [from Australia], I really looked to the films of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB) to build my knowledge of the Canadian film industry and Canadian film history. I’ve always loved and had a passion for documentaries, but the NFB has been really influential in the development of the doc form and the language and technology, so I always look to it in terms of enhancing my knowledge of documentary. And it’s a great organization in terms of its evolution, too – these interactive docs and hybrid forms of doc are the way of the future.

"highrise: universe within"

“Highrise: Universe Within”

In terms of programming feature docs, where did you get your experience?

I was acquiring for broadcast when I was working at Channel Zero, so I had  Silver Screen Classics as one of the channels that I programmed and we had a mandate of 30 years and older and a Canadian content quota, so I was acquiring a lot of older documentary work there. When I was at Air Canada for Spafax, we were acquiring and programming new documentaries, and we set up a partnership with the NFB for programming its docs. I’ve been licensing and programming docs through every stage of my career, but the features really happened when I was in broadcast and for Air Canada and Spafax. And here at TIFF, too, docs were part of the TIFF Kids festival when I was overseeing the team, and we’ve always had docs in the TIFF in the Park programming.

This past spring, Hot Docs highlighted innovative storytelling through a virtual reality showcase and a live performance of Katerina Cizek’s Highrise: Universe Within. What can we expect in this space? 

I embrace new technologies and the opportunities they offer filmmakers in terms of enhancing storytelling abilities, so I definitely want to continue down that path in terms of engaging the technology and connecting to the audience. Right now, a lot of the technology isn’t available for mass viewing yet, particularly in terms of  VR experiences, so I’d love to be able to bring VR screening experiences to the broader public as part of the programming at Hot Docs. It’s happening on the industry side very effectively.

I’m a big fan of hybrid documentaries. The form is evolving and changing and growing, and doc filmmakers are at the forefront of that. Seeking out those kinds of doc forms and storytelling will definitely be something I want to focus on. There’s certainly always room for traditional doc storytelling. That’s not going to go away, but I think there are new opportunities out there for doc filmmakers. I want to bring those stories and the new ways of telling those stories to Toronto audiences.

What do you hope to improve at Hot Docs?

I think there are opportunities outside of the festival experience to enhance the brand and to work with other platforms, and explore other platforms as opportunities for doc filmmakers. I’m really interested in whatever we can do to enhance the audience experience and grow the Hot Docs audience, but also to provide a platform and opportunities for doc filmmakers.

The festival experience will never die. I think that’s an important and crucial element of the festival. Those opportunities for audiences to meet the filmmakers and subjects, and to talk to them about their work is an important part of why festivals remain relevant and exist. I’m looking for ways to enhance that, but also to bring documentaries to as wide an audience on as many platforms as we can.

The doc festival circuit is increasingly crowded and competitive, particularly when it comes to world premieres. Do you have any plans to ramp up efforts in that arena?

Part of me questions how important those numbers are. Toronto audiences want to see great documentaries, and that’s what we’ll continue to bring to Toronto audiences. The premieres game can be a real challenge and have its downside for festivals, too. I need to really look at the sort of work we’re getting and what we want to get, but I don’t think we’re missing out on great work. I don’t know how much it matters if we’re the first ones in the world to screen it or not.

What I do know is that the world’s doc industry comes to Hot Docs and it’s an important festival for the buying, selling, funding, pitching of documentaries. So, that industry element of the festival is a great driver for the evolution and support of doc filmmaking. On the public side, I want to focus on bringing the best docs in the world to the audience. I think a lot of those will indeed be premieres, but I don’t think ramping that up is going to be a key focus until I get in there and really dig into the programming.

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