Noah Cowan

Source: Courtesy of TIFF

Noah Cowan

Noah Cowan, the charismatic and widely influential former director of the Toronto International Film Festival, has died aged 55 after an illness.

Cowan, identified for so long with TIFF – he took a summer job there while still at high school before rising to become co-director of the festival and founding artistic director of TIFF Lightbox –was a popular and much-loved figure on the international film circuit. A former critic and writer, he went on to head up the San Francisco Film Society after leaving TIFF in 2014 before founding his own consultancy firm in 2019.

Cowan worked internationally as well as in Canada and the US, and his guidance, influence and taste were felt in multiple markets as the co-head of his distribution company Cowboy. From Asia, where he worked closely with film producers and directors through their projects’ careers, through to the UK, where he most recently consulted in Edinburgh. But it was at Toronto that his presence was most felt, as he guided the festival from being a festival of festivals to its dominant status as North America’s premier film event.

Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Cowan graduated from McGill with a degree in philosophy, but film was already in his blood. He volunteered at TIFF when he was 14, and continued programming at the festival – co-founding its Midnight Madness section – through the rest of his education and his early years as a freelance critic (including for Sight & Sound) and contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine. He then co-founded the New York-based Cowboy Pictures with John Vanco, specialising in the distribution of global arthouse cinema at a formative time in many film markets.

Cowan returned full-time to TIFF in 2004 to become co-director of the festival with Piers Handling. When the festival moved to the Lightbox, he became the founding artistic director of TIFF Lightbox in 2009, eventually leaving in 2014.

During his tenure, the festival grew in size and prestige as it became the launchpad for US awards releases and the venue of choice for international cinema making its debut in North America. A hub for cinema devotees and global filmmakers and dealers, TIFF in those years owed much of its character to Cowan’s warmth and unfailing enthusiasm.

The son of an actress and a publisher, Cowan travelled widely outside his native Canada, and ended up settling in Los Angeles, where he ran Noah Cowan Consulting from 2019 until his death.

Cowan is survived by his 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).

Remembrances can be made in the form of contributions to The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film and Toronto’s Cinematheque. For questions or information please contact or  and