The Leo Awards Legacy with Walter Daroshin

By Catherine Barr

An exclusive interview with Leo Awards president Walter Daroshin as we look at the glamorous 'Hollywood North' legacy that continues in 2020 by honouring the motion picture and television industry here in British Columbia.

CAT: Hello. We’re speaking with Walter Daroshin today. A very famous face in Vancouver who deals with many famous faces in his role as president of the Leo Awards. The Leo Awards are one of Vancouver’s most spectacular, or dare I say, Canada’s most spectacular events. Walter, tell us what started the Leo Awards? 

WD: Well, hello Catherine, to you and your listeners. The Leos were born 23-24 years ago, really as a response to what we saw happening within the industry. The film and television community here became much more adept and prolific at what it did. It became much more polished, and we’re producing programming that stood up against anything that we saw anywhere on the horizon. There was a small group of us that got together and talked about these things, but we decided that it would be  time to consider celebrating the artistic achievements of this community. 

CAT: Now, you mentioned there were key players. Sonny Wong, of course, is one of the pivotal players in this endeavour. 

WD: Yeah, well Sonny and I had been partners in a variety of projects going back almost 35 years. And Sonny’s expertise was in the event management business. In those early days, there were a number of people that came in and out of our circle – and our board, which is public, is stocked with people that are leaders within the industry. 

CAT: There are people from everywhere – from the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Foundation in British Columbia to ACTRA to Creative BC. So you really managed to pull together a community in producing the Leo Awards? 

WD: Well yes! Right from day one, we needed support from the “industry”, and that included every union, every guild, every funding agency. And then backwards into the actual production community, all of the primary and major producers of the work – so it really did require a buy-in. 

And at that point in time, it felt as though the work that was happening here wasn’t being necessarily acknowledged as much as, for example, the community in Toronto, And so really, you know, our reaction was more of a response to that. We said it’s wonderful to have a national program. It’s important to support a national agenda. However, as with many other jurisdictions, we felt it was time to inaugurate our own [in BC] as well.

CAT: For those who’ve never been to the Leo Awards – I’ve written about them for years, and I’ve attended them for years – and I get so excited, and you know why? It is BC’s Oscar awards. It involves glamorous red carpets, people in outfits and dresses. It involves live music on the stage. It has presenters. It has speeches. It has funny moments. It’s a really big, glamorous, exciting night. Tell us some of the thinking behind this. 

WD: Well, I’ll correct you in that regard. People often use the word Oscars as a comparison but to be to be fair, we’re much more like the Golden Globes. And what I mean by that is we don’t present in an auditorium with people seated side by side. We’re in hotel ballrooms. There’s food involved. There’s wine on the table. There’s champagne. We host three nights each year. There is a red carpet, as you mentioned, and there’s excitement.

We celebrate 14 separate program genres from motion picture, television, movie, dramatic series – all the way down to student production music videos. The human beings that inhabit these silos of production don’t always necessarily meet. There’s no reason for them to get together. And that was also one of the inspirations behind the idea of creating our own program is to bring all of these disparate groups together in celebration of a common purpose, acknowledging that we’re pretty good at what we do. 

CAT: It is fun, and I do agree that the Golden Globes is a much better comparison. It is really fun for us to see not only familiar faces and famous faces, but to see industry faces. I don’t think there’s been a time yet, where I’ve sat at a table and not heard the best conversations around the tables. People have new scripts they’re talking about. And I love hearing the humility and humbleness that comes with being a Canadian, and being a British Columbian, and just how good we are at what we do. 

WD: Yeah, well, you know, we have become the third-largest production centre in North America. And it’s built primarily on the service sector. And what I mean by that is we “make” the films. So the programs, the TV movies, for example, that you mentioned, they may very well be financed in the United States, they may very well be owned by American companies, and they may very well be broadcast on American television stations – yet they come to us to make them, and we’ve become very, very good at that. 

We’re known as much for our expertise in making the programs as we are in developing and having that independent sector. And we have some very quiet leaders among us as again, not only recognizable people, but people who have a body of work going back beyond 20 years – people that have been groundbreaking in their work that has been adopted. 

CAT: So how do you get a Leo award?

WD: Well, the first thing you have to do is you have to enter the program. You have to determine which categories you’d like to enter. So that’s the first step – simply entering. We’ve averaged about 1,500 entries a year. 

And so then we gather industry professionals and people to adjudicate. They screen all of the material. They’re mostly what I like to call cinematic polymaths. We don’t have branch style adjudication. We don’t have just actors adjudicating acting or directors adjudicating directing. We have a group of individuals who have a wide variety of experiences, and they determine what they feel is best realized. And then, of course, we go to ballots and send all of the materials to our accountants, and they are determined through tabulation. And what the results are. And then we throw a party and people awards. There you go. 

CAT: Wow. That’s amazing.

WD: Well, it’s a process, and you may not agree with it, but I can absolutely guarantee you that there’s a considerable amount of consciousness and attention paid to every aspect of what we do. An incredible amount of work goes into this, and we get to see the sparkly results at the end of it. 

CAT: And that, of course, is my favourite part. And for the public, we do love seeing all the famous faces on the stage. For instance, Brent Butt and his wife Nancy Robertson, of Corner Gas fame, are well known Leo Award winners and hosts. John Cassini, Steve Bacic, Sonya Salomaa – all names we know from made for tv movies and more. Drew and Johnathan Scott, The Property Brothers – they’ve walked the red carpet. And many more. 

WD: There’s so many. We really do try and celebrate our own community, and they’re all absolutely wonderful. 

CAT: Correct me again if I’m wrong. But I heard that this year’s nominations also included Robert Downey Jr. and Iggy Pop. Tell us about that. 

WD: This year, there were two individuals in particular whose names jumped out at me when I saw the nominations list. And one, of course, was Robert Downey Jr, who was an executive producer on a documentary series that’s focused on artificial intelligence – and the other one program actually won the Leo for the same category documentary series. The program series was called Punk, and one of the producers was Iggy Pop. So yes, Iggy Pop is going to be awarded a Leo Award this year. 

CAT: So Iggy is going to have one of those spectacular statues sitting on his mantle. Wow! Now that’s Derik Murray that produces that series, isn’t it? We’ve featured him in our magazines before. 

WD: So yes, I am Heath Ledger. I am Chris Farley. Facing Ali. There are quite a few of them that have been produced over the years. Derik is very prolific. 

CAT: Tell us about this year. The 2020 Leo Awards, like everybody else, adjustments had to be made. But the show must go on. Tell us how you did it in 2020 with the virtual award ceremony? 

WD: Well, we were fortunate in that there were three significant awards programs that were taking place prior to ours. We had already made the decision, given the circumstances of the COVID the pandemic that we were going to have to go virtual. We weren’t able to put 800 people in a room together so that that decision was made. And then we were able to witness the events unfolding – at the Canadian Screen Awards, which is Canada’s national program, the Rocky Awards, which is based in Alberta (that has an international flavour to it as well), and the Daytime Emmy Awards, which is a big, US-based program. We were able to watch and screen those three programs in advance of confirming how we were going to structure ours. 

They were all wonderfully done. Very highly, highly polished professional, as you can imagine. But the one thing that we noticed was there was a bit of a lack of the human component. Everything was pre-recorded. What was missing was the live element. And so what we decided to do was to offer that opportunity for our award recipients to stand by in a [virtual] wait room during our programming. If their name was called, they would be able to “Zoom” in to the program and say whatever they wanted to say. 

CAT: So you got that anticipation element. And you got that surprise announcement. And you managed to build that in. How wonderful. 

WD: Yeah, it was scary. I have to admit, because there’s no boundaries. We only had one F-bomb over three nights [laughing]. So never you never know what’s going to happen when you go live. But it did work. 

In the moment, it was probably traumatic for the individual. But in hindsight, I find that these are humorous. People were getting their awards, and they had forgotten to unmute themselves so we couldn’t hear what they were saying. So a lot of the technical issues that we experienced were on the other end. We were so concerned with our end that we forgot that these are human beings who were maybe doing this for the first time.

CAT: That just adds to the charm of all of this. And I think that the charm is an element that the Leo Awards have a natural built-in ability to communicate. Walter, the last two minutes belong to you. What holds for next year’s Leo Awards? 

WD: That’s a very difficult question, too. We just don’t know. I suppose we’re entering into September. By this point, there would have been a number of productions completed and wrapped. So when it comes to the November timeframe, when we traditionally have our call for entries, we’re not quite sure what to expect. What is it we’re going to actually be celebrating next year? 

I believe very strongly in what we do, I believe that celebrating the work and acknowledging the artistic achievement within our community is an equal measure important to the economic aspect of what we do. You know, we often say, ‘Oh, $3.6 billion and 55,000 people employed’, – and that’s true and wonderful, and we should applaud that. But my focus has always been on the artistic and the creative aspects of the industry. And that’s all I can kind of do is just hold on to that and move forward with it. 

CAT: Well, as we’ve said before, and we’ll say forever – the show must go on. And thanks to brilliant people like Walter Daroshin and your team, it will. Well, that’s a wrap with Walter Daroshin, President, Leo Awards. Thank you so much for chatting with us today. We hope you’ll stay in touch – and save as a smile.

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