Toronto International Film Festival founder Bill Marshall dead at 77

Bill Marshall, founder of the Toronto International Film Festival, died Sunday morning at age 77 after suffering cardiac arrest.

'In a very real way Bill was in the business of making dreams become reality,' family statement reads

Bill Marshall, founder of the Toronto International Film Festival, died at age 77 after suffering cardiac arrest New Year's Day. (TIFF/Twitter)

Toronto International Film Festival founder William (Bill) Marshall has died at age 77 after suffering cardiac arrest, according to a family statement released through TIFF's press office Sunday.

Marshall, described as "a pioneer in the Canadian film industry," died in hospital in Toronto on New Year's Day, the statement said.

"In a very real way, Bill was in the business of making dreams become reality," read the statement. "Now, as the house lights dim, friends and family will remember and honour Bill as a first rate raconteur, famous for his honesty, keen mind and wry humour."

The film trailblazer, who immigrated to Canada from Glasgow, Scotland in 1955, founded the festival in 1976 along with co-founders Henk Van der Kolk and Dusty Cohl. He has 13 different feature film credits to his name and also produced hundreds of documentaries. 

TIFF began small but became one of North America's biggest film festivals, important because it had a public audience, instead of screening to insiders. It became known as a good place to premiere movies to the public and many filmmakers launched careers through the festival.

TIFF began as a "festival of festivals" bringing in films that had earned acclaim elsewhere, but became an influential forum for screening new work.

Marshall was its director for three years.

In an interview with City Life, Marshall said he always knew TIFF would become a bigger, more influential festival

"Its [success was] not because we did anything unusual. We just brought films from all around the world," he said.

He said the festival filled a need for Toronto's diverse population to see films from their own countries as well as for film buffs to see fare not available at commercial cinemas.

"We would put Greek movies on, or Italian movies, or Cuban movies, or Asian movies, or Bangladeshi movies, and [people would] come out in droves because they had to see that. So, let's call TIFF a no-brainer."

Piers Handling, TIFF's current director, said Marshall's creation of TIFF was a significant legacy.

"Without his tenacity and dedication, the Toronto International Film Festival would not be among the most influential public cultural festivals today," Handling said in a statement.

Marshall also created the Niagara International Film Festival, which has run for the past two years.

As news of Marshall's death emerged, tributes began pouring in on social media for him from across the Canadian and U.S. film industries as well as from many in Toronto, the heart of the festival. 

Toronto Mayor John Tory also tweeted a statement for the man he described as "a dedicated Torontonian." The 77-year-old served as campaign manager for three different Toronto mayors, says the statement.

Arrangements for "a proper send-off" are underway, the family says, and will be released when finalized.

Marshall is survived by his wife, Sari Ruda, his children Lee, Stephen and Shelagh, and six grandchildren.

TIFF co-founder Bill Marshall (left) attends the TIFF Bell Lightbox ribbon cutting with wife Sari Ruda during the 35th Toronto International Film Festival on September 12, 2010 in Toronto, Canada. (Jag Gundu/Getty Images)