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Noah Cowan, former co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival, dead at 55

TIFF Bell Lightbox Artistic director, Noah Cowan, participates in a press conference for "The Cronenberg Project" at the TIFF Bell Lightbox during 2013 Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013 in Toronto. Noah Cowan, former co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival, has died at the age of 55. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Invision, Evan Agostini

TORONTO — Noah Cowan, former co-director of the Toronto International Film Festival, has died at the age of 55.

Cowan's publicist said he was diagnosed with glioblastoma in December 2021 and died Wednesday in Los Angeles.

Festival CEO Cameron Bailey recalled Cowan's "booming laugh," quick wit and passion for championing LGBTQ filmmakers.

"He was kind of like an intellectual spark within our organization, and pretty much everywhere he went," said Bailey.

"Along with that, and maybe the reason for it, what fed it was this incredible curiosity he had about everything." 

The Hamilton-born Cowan began his TIFF career as a teen volunteer with the box office in 1981.

He held various positions until he joined a team that helped establish the Midnight Madness program in 1988, taking over as lead the following year until 1996. 

Bailey said Cowan's guidance helped make the cult-film program a leading platform for genre cinema in the world.

"That's something, a legacy we've tried to maintain over the years with great programmers who followed him, but that was Noah's passion and his excitement for what movies, without the artistic pedigree, could do."

From 1993 to 2001, Cowan also ran Cowboy Pictures, an indie film distributor in New York that provided support to first-time filmmakers.

He returned to TIFF as co-director in 2004, holding the position until he became artistic director of the TIFF Bell Lightbox from 2008 to 2014.

After that, he served as executive director of the San Francisco Film Society from 2014 to 2019, and then moved to Los Angeles to run a consulting agency for media and visual arts organizations. 

Longtime friend Nuria Bronfman, executive director of the Movie Theatre Association of Canada, said she had never met anyone who loved life as much as Cowan.

“He was not only a friend and partner in crime, but I learned a lot from him,” said Bronfman.

“He was very generous with his knowledge, his contacts and was very willing to introduce me to his circle of people that he had been working with and he just wanted me to succeed and was very supportive.”

Bailey said TIFF would look at organizing a memorial for Cowan, as well as for Ravi Srinivasan, senior manager of festival programming, who died Jan. 14 at age 37.

Bailey said TIFF had dedicated this year's edition of its annual Canada's Top Ten film list to Srinivasan.

Bronfman said Cowan lived his life on his terms.

"And he was incredibly positive, even up until the end. He just would not allow the disease to alter his outlook in life,” said Bronfman.

“I was always amazed, you know, after spending time with him over the past year, that he was the one that was lifting everybody else around him up. He will be very sorely missed.”

Cowan is survived by husband John O'Rourke; parents Nuala FitzGerald Cowan and Edgar Cowan; brothers Brian FitzGerald (Diane) and Tim FitzGerald (Sandi); nieces and nephews Meagan, Brendan, Garrett, Zoe and Julie FitzGerald; aunt Betty Boardman; and cousins Patrick Boardman (Glynis) and David Cassidy (Yulia).

— with files from David Friend in Toronto

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 26, 2023.

Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press