Darryl Macdonald, who helped create the mammoth Seattle International Film Festival, has died. He was 70.

He died of cancer at his home in Palm Springs, California, on July 20, said his sister Devorah Macdonald.

With Dan Ireland, whom he met in seventh grade at Kitsilano High School in Vancouver, B.C., Macdonald co-founded SIFF in 1976, building it into a cinematic colossus over the next three decades.

“His vision, leadership, creativity, and passion for film was the foundation of SIFF,” the organization said in a statement, “and his loss will be felt across the industry.”

In 1975, Macdonald and Ireland came to Seattle from Vancouver after working in movie theaters there. They picked up the lease on Seattle’s venerable Moore Theatre, enlisted a cadre of volunteers to help refurbish the place (“On that beautiful tile floor they’d glued bargain-basement carpeting,” Macdonald later recalled, in horror, in a 1985 interview with The Seattle Times), and refashioned the venue as the Moore Egyptian moviehouse, home to the first SIFF.

It was an early indication of the duo’s ability to combine business savvy with kitschy flair. “Darryl was the businessman, Dan was the showman,” Gary Tucker, a former longtime SIFF do-everything employee who began working for them in the early 1980s, wrote in a Facebook post. “Darryl balanced the books, and Dan doodled in the margins. They finished each other’s sentences and shared the same private jokes.”

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After five years, Macdonald and Ireland performed another magic act when they left the Moore and transformed the Masonic Temple on Capitol Hill into another movie palace called The Egyptian. It became home base for SIFF, and for their company, Stage Fright Inc.

“The Egyptian was a testament to their taste,” Tucker said Tuesday. “I remember patrons telling me that they came to movies at the Egyptian not knowing anything about what they were going to see, but trusting that any movie playing at the Egyptian was worth seeing.”

SIFF became known as a launching pad for independent films (before the term “independent film” had caught on) and for the discovery of Dutch films in America. “The festival was a hands-on labor of love and an expression of its founders’ eccentric and iconoclastic personalities,” said film critic Jim Emerson, who was a festival programmer in the 1980s.

Ireland left SIFF in 1986 for a career in filmmaking; he died in 2016. Macdonald carried on solo, supervising the festival as it continued to grow into what’s billed as the largest film festival in the United States. While running SIFF, he also took on stints as a programming director for film festivals in Vancouver and the Hamptons.
When then-mayor Sonny Bono founded the Palm Springs International Film Festival in 1989, he brought in Macdonald as the programming director for that festival’s first four years. In 2003, Macdonald left his post at SIFF to become executive director at PSIFF, where attendance steadily increased under his leadership. He retired in 2016.

“Darryl was, and I say this with absolute conviction, a creative cinema genius,” said Kathleen McInnis, who began as a SIFF publicist and was later hired by Macdonald as director of the Palm Springs ShortFest. “And like any creative genius, he was madly passionate about what he did and how it was done. His contributions to film cannot be exaggerated.”

At heart, Macdonald was a movie fan. Tucker remembers seeing “Aliens” at a 1986 preview screening: “At one point in the action I looked down the row at Darryl, scrunched waaay down in his seat, his feet on the backs of the chairs in front of him, watching the film by peeking over his knees. He turned at the exact same time towards me, and the expression on his face — sheer delight and terror and glee at a matinee monster movie — is the way I will always remember him.”

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Devorah Macdonald said, “My beloved brother was my guiding light in life and it is with no pleasure that I mention his passing, nor are there words to inform how wonderful a brother he has been throughout my life nor how special an uncle he has been to my three children.”

Macdonald is also survived by two other siblings: brother Michael Macdonald and sister Gerri Davis.

A celebration of life is tentatively planned for July 20, 2021, likely in Seattle.