Noah Cowan: Toronto Film Fest Director and Indie Distributor, Dies at 55

Toronto Film Fest Director and Indie Distributor, Dies at 55

The veteran specialty distributor, as well as film festival programmer and head, got his start in indie film working as a summer volunteer in the box office at TIFF in 1981.

Noah Cowan, a veteran film festival director and indie film specialty distributor, most recently with San Francisco Film Festival, has died. He was 55.

Cowan died Wednesday in Los Angeles after battle with glioblastoma multiforme that was first diagnosed in December 2021.

During a career that began in 1981 as a summer volunteer working in the box office at the Toronto International Film Festival, Cowan went on to be a veteran film festival programmer and director, a curator of visual art and film-related exhibitions, a film distribution executive and a journalist covering international film festivals and other events.

That year, Cowan became a film programmer at TIFF, where he oversaw the Midnight Madness program of genre titles.

He went on to program films for Toronto from India and Japan during the early 1990s. As artistic director of Toronto, he was responsible for the creative and artistic vision for the annual September festival and Bell Lightbox, TIFF’s year-round home.

He curated exhibitions and installations, including showcases of work by such diverse figures as David Cronenberg, Grace Kelly and visual artists Yang Fudong and Candice Breitz, as well as major retrospectives related to the history of Chinese cinema and the Indian superstar Raj Kapoor. He also was responsible for a large educational portfolio, including the TIFF Cinematheque, the TIFF Kids International Film Festival, several significant learning programs for students of all ages and large-scale collaborations between film and visual arts institutions around the world.

Cowan also served as Filmmaker magazine’s main festival correspondent and as a contributing editor. And in 2002, he co-founded and worked as executive director of the Global Film Initiative in New York City, a not-for-profit organization aiming to promote cross-cultural understanding through film.

Cowan returned to Toronto in 2004 and until 2008 was co-director of the Toronto Film Festival. Then, from 2008-14, he was artistic director of TIFF Bell Lightbox, working as a protégé under then TIFF director and CEO Piers Handling.

In 2014, Cowan left Canada again to become executive director of SFFILM in San Francisco, home of the San Francisco International Film Festival, a position he held for five years before moving to Los Angeles to launch a media consultancy company.

Cowan is survived by his husband, John O’Rourke; parents Nuala FitzGerald Cowan and Edgar Cowan; and brothers Brian FitzGerald and Tim FitzGerald. The family requests that remembrances can be made with contributions to The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film and Toronto’s Cinematheque.