This article was originally published in 2009
It is no easy feat to sum up Maria Topalovich, but her friend, colleague and Hall of Fame alum, Trina McQueen, does it best.
‘Like the operatic heroine Tosca, Maria has lived for art,’ says McQueen. ‘Unlike Tosca, she never had to stab a policeman, or even a broadcast executive, to achieve her objectives.
‘She has other weapons,’ McQueen elaborates. ‘Intelligence, persistence, leadership and charm. Her passion is a simple one: that Canadian artistic excellence should be recognized and celebrated. Her victory is that the Genies and Geminis exist, and our delight is that she herself is now properly recognized and celebrated. Bravo!’
But 30 years ago, when Maria Topalovich was first approached by Andra Sheffer to join the newly born Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television, the sprightly Slavic-Canadian turned her down flat.
‘I had my own communications company,’ recalls the gifted, brilliantly organized woman whose name will always be associated with the Academy and its glittering awards shows. ‘Bill [William] Littler was having me write classical music reviews for the Toronto Star, and I was teaching piano, working with choirs and helping Paul Hoffert promote a children’s record he’d made with his wife Brenda.’
A graduate of the University of Toronto’s prestigious Music Faculty, Topalovich was an avid classical music lover and one of legendary pianist Glenn Gould’s late-night phone confidants. ‘He’d call at 3 a.m.,’ she says of the famed eccentric, ‘and I’d lie on the floor and just listen to him. I was honored that he valued my opinion.’
Luckily, Hoffert, a renowned musician and early chair of the Academy, appreciated the dual passion of music and film, and pursued Topalovich with the help of Sheffer, the organization’s first executive director.
‘We met at the old Festival of Festivals office in Yorkville,’ says Topalovich of her first meeting with Sheffer, ‘and Andra practically seduced me into taking the job. It was the ’70s when everything was possible and I loved the idea of doing something new and exciting.’
That seemingly casual decision prompted a momentous career change for Topalovich, who spent the next 28 years rising from the role of the Academy’s director of marketing and communications to its president and CEO, the title she held until 2007 when she gracefully passed the baton. During that time, the Genie, Gemini and Gemeaux awards were established as benchmarks for excellence in this country’s major media industries.
Energetic and creative, Topalovich oversaw the growth of the Academy from 400 to over 4,000 members and still recalls its early days with enthusiasm. ‘It was a two-hander, just me and Andra, for the longest time,’ she says, but the two hit the ground running. Topalovich was hired in December 1979 and the first Genie Awards ceremony took place in March 1980.
Sheffer recalls Topalovich’s early challenges: ‘Convince cynical Canadian press that Canadian feature films really are good, and that they should even write about them,’ quips Sheffer. ‘Give them the hooks for their stories – or nearly write them for them. Wine and dine them. Cajole, convince, and caress their egos,’ she laments.
‘And the press were the easy part,’ Sheffer adds. Every year there were ‘the dreaded seating plans for the Genie Awards,’ she laughs, and ‘how to fit 1,500 people in the first five rows, where they all insisted they had to be.’
One of Topalovich’s most creative roles was that of executive producer of the Genies and Geminis, which she undertook from 1990 to 2007.
‘Being a producer was an aspect of my job that was unique,’ she says. ‘It evolved because the Academy wanted more creative input in the award shows and that became possible when we created ACCTV Productions and the shows became independent productions.’
She is pleased with the results, which were often breezier and funnier than similar productions in the U.S. and Europe. ‘The restraints in award shows are enormous,’ she points out. ‘There’s no room for dramatic arcs. We doggedly stuck to our own talent. The presenters were good sports: Lloyd [Robertson] and Peter [Mansbridge] and Gordon Pinsent. I wasn’t popular with the writers because I refused to let them go the self-deprecation route. I’m proud of our shows.’
Topalovich also had the skills and desire necessary to work with Sheffer on creating a Montreal office for the Academy. Both were aware of the highly charged political environment in Quebec and that many artists would not be disposed to working with a Canadian organization with its national office in Toronto. Topalovich admits that it was ‘an uphill battle to woo the Quebecois’ and attributes much of the success to Patrice Lachance, who still runs the Quebec division.
‘There were passionate moments over the years,’ admits Topalovich ‘but we had the same goals. We created a structure where there was autonomy, even financially. We were there as support. In the end, it’s all about listening and compromising.’
Also passionate about writing, Topalovich penned two Canadian film history books during her tenure at the Academy: And the Genie Goes to…Celebrating 50 Years of Canadian Film Awards and A Pictorial History of the Canadian Film Awards. Four editions of Who’s Who in Canadian Film and Television and the Making It, Telling It, Selling It film production trilogy were also published under her guidance.
Topalovich was able to maintain a suitable distance between her private and public life, especially difficult because her husband, Peter Mortimer, was head of the CFTPA for many years. ‘When we came home, we didn’t want to deal with work,’ she says. ‘We didn’t travel or socialize that much. The Academy’s events brought the entire industry together, so I felt I didn’t need to do much social networking.’
Since retiring from the Academy, Topalovich has been able to spend more time with Mortimer, their two adult daughters and one granddaughter. She’s been active, serving as vice-president of the Actors’ Fund of Canada and taking on roles as vice chair of the board of trustees for Casa Loma and president of the U of T Faculty of Music’s Alumni Association.
Today she is a consultant and part-time executive director of the Guild of Canadian Film Composers. ‘It’s a perfect marriage of my twin passions – film and music,’ says Topalovich.
1970: Establishes piano pedagogy studio
1974: Creates and coproduces concert series Noon-time Concerts at Queen’s Park
1975: Graduates U of T Faculty of Music – Master of Music (Musicology)
1975-77: Associate music critic, Toronto Star
1976: Co-ordinates special projects at Ontario Arts Council for executive director Louis Applebaum
1978: Director of publicity, Canadian Opera Company
1979: Joins Academy as director of marketing and communications
1979-81: Director of publicity, Festival of Festivals
1980: Helps to establish and launch the first Genie Awards
1980-90: Develops and oversees publications, information, publicity and promotional services and programs
1983: Coproduces Academy’s The Shape of Rage: The Films of David Cronenberg, published by General Publishing
1984: Writes the Academy’s A Pictorial History of the Canadian Film Awards (Stoddart Publishing)
1986: Helps to establish and launch the first Gemini and Gemeaux awards
1986: First edition of Academy’s Who’s Who in Canadian Film and Television/Qui est Qui. Subsequent editions published in 1987, 1989, 1999, 2002
1987: Making It: The Business of Film and Television Production in Canada, written by Topalovich, is published by the Academy and Doubleday
1990: Named Academy chief of staff
1990-07: Oversees professional development initiatives, conferences and training programs and spearheads growth of the Academy’s membership to 4,000-plus; serves as executive producer of the Genie and Gemini Awards
1990: Establishes ACCTV Productions to independently produce the Genie and Gemini Awards
1991-00: Board member, CulTech Research Centre, York University
1994: Named president and CEO of Academy
1994-01: Board member, Royal Conservatory of Music
1995: Produces Selling It: The Marketing Canadian Feature Films, published by Doubleday
1996: Produces Telling It: Writing for Canadian Film and Television, published by Doubleday
1999: Receives the Bill Hilson Award for outstanding service to the development of the motion picture industry in Canada from the Canadian Society of Cinematographers
2000: And the Genie Goes To…Celebrating 50 Years of Canadian Film Awards, written by Topalovich, is published by Stoddart
2004: Receives the Outstanding Achievement Award from Women in Film and Television
2006: Becomes Member of College of Electors at U of T
2007: Resigns from Academy; appointed vice-president of board of directors of Actors’ Fund of Canada; elected president of Faculty of Music Alumni Association at U of T
2008: Appointed by City of Toronto as vice-chair of board of trustees for Casa Loma
2009: Appointed executive director of the Guild of Canadian Film Composers