It took me a long time to set up an interview with Michèle Maheux, the unsung hero of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Weeks, if you count from early August, when Maheux quietly announced plans to step down as TIFF’s executive director and chief operating officer, a phased retirement beginning Nov. 1.
Years, if you count the many previous times I’ve tried to get her to talk about her behind-the-scenes work supporting TIFF director/CEO Piers Handling, her longtime friend and colleague who is also stepping down from his top post at the festival. They’re being succeeded by artistic director Cameron Bailey and incoming executive director Joana Vicente, TIFF’s new “co-heads.” Maheux will remain until summer 2019 to assist with the transition, making it 30 years for her with the festival.
Maheux resists the spotlight, which may seem at odds with her efforts to promote and mentor women both within and outside the organization.
But she came to TIFF from the world of public relations, including a stint at Cineplex working for the voluble Garth Drabinsky, and she learned that the coaching and team-building skills she possesses, which she proudly calls her “superpowers,” don’t always require a megaphone.
“People have told me that I should be out front more often,” says Maheux, as we converse in the small lounge area of her open-air office at TIFF Bell Lightbox festival headquarters, near rows of desks occupied by many of the young festival employees she has helped mentor.
“I’m out in front as often as I want to be — and coming from PR, our job is to stay as far back as possible, to keep our names out of the paper. That’s my training.
“I just really love what I do. I’ve had the most amazing ride and I haven’t resented not being the primary spokesperson. I’m the spokesperson when I need to be, or I should be.”
Handling says Maheux deserves a large share of the credit for TIFF’s success. The festival has grown over four decades from a single 11-day event in September, operating from rented office space, to a year-round operation of multiple events in a purpose-built HQ that opened in 2010. In her three decades at TIFF, the annual budget has grown from just over $ 4 million to 10 times that amount, with 200 full-time staff, hundreds of part-timers and thousands of passionate volunteers.
Together Handling and Maheux have weathered many storms, including the 9/11 terror attacks of 2001 and the SARS crisis of 2003, which threatened to cancel the festivals those years.
“I think it was a great partnership because it was a little bit like yin and yang,” Handling says. “We just complemented each other. We couldn’t have done the building without her, and the organization would not be where it is without somebody like Michèle at my right hand. It’s as simple as that.”
Maheux started as a volunteer in TIFF’s press and communications office in 1989, later to become its full-time head. Bailey first knew her there when he was covering the fest as a film critic. He was impressed by how well she handled the many demands and complaints of an often unruly press corps.
When she became TIFF managing director in 1998, a title later changed to executive director, she extended those skills to dealing with the many corporate and individual sponsors whose support has enabled the festival to thrive in an often cutthroat environment of cultural institutions seeking cash and influence.
“The thing I think that I’ve learned the most from Michèle is the importance of treating people well,” Bailey says. “She has great instincts in terms of how to navigate people. That’s really important.”
TIFF was founded in 1976 by three men — Bill Marshall, Dusty Cohl and Henk Van der Kolk — and in recent decades its most visible spokespersons have been Handling and Bailey. Prior to the incoming Vicente, there’s only previously been one woman atop TIFF’s chain of command, Helga Stephenson, who directed the fest from 1986 to 1994 before Handling took over.
But you’d be wrong to think of it as a bit of a boys club. There have always been a lot of women working to make TIFF the global success it’s become, Maheux says.
“The boys may have started it, but it was run by women. The management group of this organization is more than 70 per cent women. So this for me has always been more of a women’s show.”
The thing that has most impressed her about working for TIFF is the ability of people to rise to a challenge. There have been many — including the current stresses of operating a five-screen multiplex within TIFF Bell Lightbox, at a time when streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon are stealing many eyeballs. The best way to deal with such challenges, Maheux says, is to hire dedicated people who may be smarter than you.
“I think when you hire people of character and people who are smarter than you, they surprise you with what they’re able to do,” she says. “And maybe surprise is the wrong word. I’m kind of overwhelmed at the passion that this place holds and the people who work here … People stick around here for a long time.
“People have such passion for this organization and it surprises and obviously warms my heart. I stuck around because I believed in the mission and vision. You want people to feel that burn and feel that energy.”
At 60, Maheux has decided it’s time to start the next phase, although she’s in no rush to figure out what that is. Her immediate plans are to help Bailey and Vicente get settled into their new roles, and continue with the coaching and mentoring of young people that she loves doing.
She plans to leave the building by next July 1, around the time she and her family take a long-planned trip to China. Whatever she takes up after that — and she’s already had multiple offers, both inside and outside the movie industry — it will not involve seeking the spotlight or the megaphone.
“I said that I wanted to live my own transition, with deliberation and enthusiasm, and that’s what I’m doing,” Maheux says with a smile. “So yes, I’m pretty happy with my choices.”
Peter Howell is the Star’s movie critic based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @peterhowellfilm