By: Fiona Marrow
This article was originally published in 2015
“Helga is an extraordinary combination of charm, intelligence and wit – something rarely found bundled into one person. She simply draws people to her; she is a magnet.”
Veteran Canadian producer Robert Lantos is not alone in this assessment: ask anyone involved in the Canadian film industry to talk about Helga Stephenson – her influence and legacy – and the responses ripple with awe and admiration.
Hers has been a remarkable 40-year career, powered by passion and a penchant, as one observer puts it, for “pizzazz.” As a publicist, she was instrumental in taking Canadian cinema to the international market then, at Toronto International Film Festival, she brought that international market back to Canada.
Her love of the world and its moving images has paid dividends at home and abroad: she co-founded the Toronto Human Rights Watch Film Festival and, in the land of her Icelandic forefathers, is chair of the Reykjavik International Film Festival. Her most recent achievement has been breathing life into the moribund Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television.
“She took over the Academy [in 2011] when it was on its deathbed,” Lantos notes. “No broadcaster would run its awards show.
“She had the temerity to take it on, and she brought it back to life,” he says. “It is an extraordinary accomplishment and, in my opinion, her greatest.”
But, while the Canadian film and TV business undoubtedly owes her a fulsome vote of thanks for saving their association, the Academy is only the latest feather in Stephenson’s remarkable resume.
Raised in the affluent Montreal suburb of Mount Royal, Stephenson says she always knew deep down that her future would be in the arts.
Her love of movies developed early, despite the ban on under-16s entering Montreal cinemas imposed after the Laurier Palace Theatre Fire. She recalls with a throaty laugh that when the ban was eventually lifted in 1961, the first film open to kids was The Ten Commandments. “Can you imagine? We all went tearing off to see it.”
The ban had created a mystique around the cinema; it was, she says, “the forbidden fruit”. And, as an undergraduate at McGill University in the 1960s (where she saw Robert Lantos and Victor Loewy’s first distribution foray, The New York Erotic Film Festival), Stephenson was ready to eat it up.
“It was the coolest, the sexiest medium going,” she says. “We were out of our minds with excitement when something like Bonnie and Clyde opened. But it was still so hard to see the films.”
After graduating from McGill in 1969, she embraced the chaos and opportunity of the time with a zest that would be echoed many times in her career. She modeled for a while, before taking off for Japan to work as a hostess. In Osaka she bumped into Sneezy Waters and his band A Rosewood Daydream, and took to managing them, touring across South East Asia, and staying on in Laos alone after the musicians headed back to Canada.
Her education in cinema wasn’t cemented until she moved to Ottawa in 1971 and took a job working in publicity at the National Arts Centre.
“I was working in the classical arts – opera, theatre, ballet,” she says. “And unbeknownst to me Piers Handling, Wayne Clarkson and Linda Beath were in town, busy working over at the Canadian Film Institute. They were putting on the most spectacular screenings, and I got a quite marvelous film education. It was thanks to them that I saw everything from The Sorrow and the Pity to Mean Streets.
“Those two movies rocked my world, shook my foundations, I would say. And the more I began to see serious foreign films I realized that’s where I wanted to be. I just had to figure out how I could get into that world.”
Her route wasn’t direct: a cheap flight to Cuba in 1974 led to a life-long love affair with the country and, right then, a year of living there, teaching English by day as part of CUSO, and hanging out in the vibrant community of Havana’s artists, musicians and filmmakers by night.
“I had more fun than you were allowed to have,” Stephenson recalls in Brian D. Johnson’s history of TIFF, Brave Films, Wild Nights: 25 Years of Festival Fever. (Lantos has since attended the Havana Film Festival with her, and witnessed her popularity: “She is the Queen of Cuba.”)
By 1976 she was in Toronto setting up SRO, a film PR company with Maureen O’Donnell and Bob Ramsay, working on Canadian films, doing everything from marketing to sales, financing and packaging.
PR was, she says, a job considered acceptable for a woman.
“There were no female producers, I had no role models,” she notes. “I could be an assistant or I could be a PR person, that was the only way I could be at the table.”
And the movers and shakers – the men – around that table were blind to her potential.
“They definitely did not see me as a threat. They saw me as a smart PR girl. But I was listening, and I learned a lot.”
In 1982, after SRO had worked as TIFF’s publicist for three years, including running the festival’s receptions at Cannes, the festival made her director of communications – and she promptly told the team she wanted to be part of the management.
“Well, there were only four of us,” she laughs. “What were they going to do? They couldn’t lock me out.”
Four years later, she became festival director. Wayne Clarkson had left in 1985 and the board hired externally, bringing in Leonard Schein from Vancouver. But when that relationship floundered just nine months later, Stephenson was ready.
“Helga had a plan,” current director and CEO, Piers Handling, explains. “She was very skillful at board relations to say the least. She maneuvered.”
The two of them had spent a lot of time travelling extensively across Latin America, researching films and making contacts. They complemented each other perfectly: she the gregarious, voracious people person, always ready to hit the dance floor; he the quiet, organized cineaste.
With Handling singled out as her festival programmer, Stephenson presented the TIFF board with a ready-made team.
Once installed, the mission was to build on the festival’s growing reputation internationally. Stephenson understood that connections are opportunities, that in film, the best business isn’t necessarily done in boardrooms, or on conference calls.
She and Handling went on the road, with screening trips to London, Paris, Rome and visits to Asia, Eastern Europe, Africa…
“Helga was a good fundraiser,” Handling says. “She was really externally friendly – people loved her. We banged on doors and she would breeze in and think on her feet and just charm everyone.”
Under her leadership, sponsorship grew, the archives were created, TIFF took over the Ontario Film Institute and, as a means to create both a well-prepared audience and full time staff, developed year-round programming.
Retired Maclean’s film critic, Brian D. Johnson covered TIFF during Stephenson’s tenure.
“She’s a larger than life character,” he notes. “She could step up to the mic at a gala screening and light up the room. She can be very direct, but she is also a natural diplomat.”
Stephenson led TIFF for a decade, leaving in 1996 to raise her newborn daughter as a single mother, unable, she says, “to reconcile what the festival needed, and what I needed to give to my child.”
She didn’t step away completely, with roles at Reykjavik and close ties to Havana. And she was honoured just last year for over a decade’s work with international research and advocacy non-profit organization Human Rights Watch, where Canada director Jasmine Herlt says she is revered for her proven instincts for spotting films (she championed Oscar-winner Born Into Brothels), her many connections, and ability to draw sponsorship.
And then there’s the Academy, where for the past five years she has shaken things up, merged the film and TV divisions and put the organization back on its feet.
It’s an accomplishment that Canadian Screen Awards show producer Barry Avrich says only Stephenson could manage, with her own special “alchemy to lead and inspire.”
“She’s taken the Academy from a hotel basement to a world class organization. In five years.”
And now, Stephenson says, it’s time to hand it back.
She will remain part of Reykjavik, Human Rights Watch and other initiatives. She’d like to live overseas for a while.
“It’s been an honour and a privilage to work in this industry, for which I am very grateful.
“It’s been a great run, and it’s the people I will miss,” she admits. “It’s the people who have always attracted me. I love the art form, but the people are so talented and passionate.”
She lets out that throaty laugh.
“But I do have other things I want to do. And I want to do them on my schedule.”
Main photo credit: Matt Forsythe