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Noah Cowan, Former TIFF Co-Director and Champion of Filmmakers, Dies at 55

By Julia MacCary,


Respected film festival executive Noah Cowan , who formerly headed the San Francisco Film Fest and served as co-director of the Toronto Film Festival and executive director of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, died Wednesday of glioblastoma multiforme after being diagnosed in December 2021. He was 55.

Former Toronto Film Fest executive director Piers Handling remembered Cowan, saying “It was a privilege to work with Noah for as long as I did. His contribution not just to TIFF but to SFFILM , the Global Film Initiative, and the entire independent film community around the world was matchless. He was a tireless advocate, had a large appetite for life, films, friendship, travel and fine dining! His artistic leadership of both the festival and TIFF Bell Lightbox was exemplary. He put some ground breaking programs together on China, Japan, and David Cronenberg and lit up every room he entered. His passing leaves a huge hole – both personally and professionally but his impact and reach will continue to resonate. We will all miss his laugh and zest for life.”

Cowan’s career in the entertainment industry began in 1989 when he served as the Midnight Madness programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival , later curating other international film retrospectives for the organization in the ’90s.

Starting in 1993, he helped launch new groundbreaking films, often from newer filmmakers, with film distributor Cowboy Pictures. Throughout the 90s, Cowan also served as chief festival correspondent and a contributing editor for Filmmaker magazine. He worked as a freelance writer and critic for other magazines including Sight & Sound, Cinemascope and Utne Reader.

Cowan was co-founder and executive director of the Global Film Initiative in New York City, which was a non-profit started in 2002 that partnered with the Museum of Modern Art to use film to create cross-cultural understanding.

After returning to TIFF from 2004 to 2008 to serve as co-director, Cowan was the first artistic director of TIFF Bell Lightbox from 2008 to 2014, a Toronto cultural center.

From 2014 to 2019, Cowan served as executive director of SFFILM, which is responsible for the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Cowan then moved to Los Angeles to found Noah Cowan Consulting, where he shared his industry and artistic knowledge with global film festivals, venture capital and non-profit clients.

In addition to his industry work, Cowan was a proud mentor to LGBTQ curators, critics and writers.

Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, he earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from McGill University in 1989.

Cowan is survived by his husband John O’Rourke, his parents Nuala and Edgar, his brothers Brian FitzGerald and Tim FitzGerald, his nieces and nephews Meagan, Brendan, Garrett, Zoe and Julie FitzGerald, his aunt Betty Boardman and his cousins Patrick Boardman and David Cassidy.

Donations may be made to The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film and Toronto’s Cinematheque. For questions or information please contact or and

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