Hot Docs CEO Marie Nelson leaves struggling festival
6 mins read

Hot Docs CEO Marie Nelson leaves struggling festival

The future of Hot Docs Film Festival, one of the largest documentary film festivals in North America, doesn’t look bright.

Less than two months after the Toronto festival temporarily closed its main theatre and laid off some of the organisation’s staff due to “urgent financial challenges,” the latest in a series of signals of economic trouble from the organisation this year, Hot Docs has revealed that president Marie Nelson has resigned.

Her departure comes a year after the former ABC News and PBS executive joined the festival. On Tuesday, July 9, Hot Docs released a statement regarding her contributions, without providing a reason for her departure. Interim executive director Janice Dawe and managing director Heidi Tao Yang will now lead the embattled organization.

“We are proud of the work Hot Docs has accomplished under Marie’s leadership and are confident that the foundation she has laid during her tenure will help us realize our full potential,” Hot Docs’ board of directors said in a statement.

According to the sources, who did not want to be named, Nelson had not permanently moved to Toronto from the United States, which worried Hot Docs staff members. The sources also said Nelson’s experience in corporate America did not make her a good candidate for the nonprofit’s CEO position. Hot Docs declined to comment beyond its statement.

Nelson’s departure isn’t exactly shocking, given the financial and personnel turmoil that Hot Docs has been in for the past few months. On March 25, Hot Docs artistic director Hussain Currimbhoy left the organization just four months into his tenure. That followed the abrupt departure of 10 festival programmers amid allegations of toxic workplace behavior and gross mismanagement.

An internal letter dated February 20 to Hot Docs’ board and management, obtained by the Toronto Star, shows that programmers’ jobs have been turned upside down because of Currimbhoy, who has performed at the Sundance, Sheffield DocFest and Melbourne Film Festivals.

“We have individual stories and experiences to share, all of which demonstrate disrespect, disrespect and humiliation from Artistic Director Hussain Currimbhoy, supported by senior management,” the letter allegedly stated.

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

Nelson has issued an “urgent appeal” for additional funds during this time. “I’ll be completely honest with you: We’re struggling. So much so that there’s a chance this festival will be our last. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure that doesn’t happen. Can you help me? While I explain the crisis Hot Docs is facing, would you consider making a quick donation today to help us get through the next few months?”

This comes after the Canadian government declined to provide funding for the documentary film festival in the federal budget unveiled April 16. The budget added another $88 million in funding for the film sector, including $17 million over three years for a larger Toronto Intl. Film Festival.

“The federal government’s decision puts the future of an important theatre and cultural centre at risk, despite ongoing calls for support from our community,” Hot Docs said in a statement after the government funding was announced. “Hot Docs has requested several million dollars in emergency funding from this budget, which is a fraction of the amount allocated for other purposes.”

While the documentary festival’s financial situation is dire, the internal war that unfolded behind the scenes earlier this year dealt a seismic blow. The loss of 10 veteran programmers a month before the 31st edition of the festival, which took place April 25–May 5, was devastating news for the participating film teams.

‘Eno’ producer Jessica Edwards admitted she was initially “very nervous” about heading to the Toronto festival.

“I wasn’t sure what it would look like logistically,” Edwards said. Diversity in April. “I wasn’t sure how it would be in theaters. I wasn’t sure about the technical team, the hospitality, the kind of machinery that would work to get a filmmaker to come to the festival. We didn’t hear from the festival for a few days after everything went down, and then we got an email that was reassuring and friendly.

According to festival organizers, average attendance for the 31st edition of Hot Docs approached pre-pandemic levels and ticket revenue exceeded its target by 12%. Despite that success, however, on June 12, Hot Docs closed its flagship Ted Rogers theater for three months and laid off some staff as it tried to cope with a deficit estimated at more than $2 million.

On June 18, Hot Docs board co-chairs Robin Mirsky and Lalita Krishna resigned from their positions. Documentary producer and Hot Docs board member Ina Fichman also left the organization last month. The festival’s board currently consists of three people: Nicholas de Pencier, Kevin Wong and Lydia Luckevich. According to a statement from Hot Docs, the trio is expected to “effectively and efficiently navigate the critical financial hurdles the organization will face in the coming months.”

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