In September, 2020, when the world was depressing (um …) and the foreseeable future grim (yeah, about that …), I made a bold prediction: When we finally emerged from the Bad Time, the Toronto International Film Festival would host the biggest bash that the movie world has ever seen. Whether we’re out of the woods or not today seems to be a matter of perspective – I’ll place myself firmly in the “post-pandemic” camp – but it is safe to say that TIFF is preparing an 11-day celebration that screams, with mask-free vigour, “comeback.”
”I always believed that, no matter what happened between pandemic restrictions and new audience behaviour, there is still something irreplaceable when it comes to watching movies in a theatre,” says Cameron Bailey, who led TIFF through two supremely strange hybrid editions as co-head alongside Joana Vicente, but since last fall has led the organization solo.
“I thought that we had to keep doing this. We have the best cinemas in the country and we can’t waste them. We had to find a way back. But it took a lot.”
To operate in the film industry, especially the Canadian sector, is to live in eternal, stubborn hope. Which is just how TIFF survived its darkest days, when 31 full-time staff positions were cut, revenue projections were slashed in half, and the doors to cinemas were shuttered for longer than any other region in North America. Matters were so uncertain that even moments of relative success were tinged with sadness.
”I’ll always remember showing Belfast last year, with Kenneth Branagh breaking down in tears during the Q&A in front of a half-capacity audience at Roy Thomson Hall,” Bailey recalls. “The emotion was there, but it didn’t have that full feeling of a festival premiere.”
Days ahead of its 2022 launch, which will include the world premieres of such hotly anticipated titles as Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, this year’s festival looks fuller than full. There are more than twice the number of films screening this year compared to 2021, all with full-capacity venues and few traces of public-health restrictions (masks are optional, except for staff members). Only the slightest, and best, remnants of the pandemic era are being carried over, with two-dozen festival titles being made available across the country via the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox’s Festival at Home program.
But it has taken a village to get TIFF to this point – and even then, support has been tested, and has wavered.
There has been the patience of the festival’s trusted Hollywood partners who supply TIFF with its splashy red carpet premieres – but that arrangement now firmly extends only to in-person screenings. “We didn’t go to the big studios this year and say we want to have your world premiere play across Canada online because we knew they didn’t want to do it – we stopped that conversation before it started,” Bailey says.
There has been the heft of TIFF’s corporate sponsors – though Bvlgari has taken over this year as one of the festival’s three major sponsors (alongside RBC and Visa) after L’Oréal “repositioned” itself at a lower level . (Sponsorship accounted for $13.5-million in earned revenue in 2019; in 2021, it was just $8.07-million.)
There has been the enthusiasm of the press – which lasted until approximately the morning of Labour Day, when accredited media began trying to secure tickets to public screenings and quickly entered a frustrating system that was missing showtimes when it wasn’t arbitrarily erasing user selections.
And there has been the dedication of all three levels of government – with the federal government stepping in with a huge Hail Mary last month when it gave TIFF a nonrepayable investment of $10-million. According to Bailey, the recovery funds are supporting both this and last year’s editions. In 2019, TIFF generated $21.8-million in earned revenue from its festival and year-round activities. In 2021, it was just $5.3-million.
”It’s making the festival whole again in terms of the size that we were used to, bearing in mind that for two years we were not able to deliver what partners and audiences expect,” Bailey says.
In terms of staffing, Bailey doesn’t expect the organization to get back to 2019 levels – but only because the goals of the institution have shifted in the interim. ”I was in conversation with our board, talking about what recovery means, and it doesn’t mean just coming back to where we were before,” he says. “It’s now about working on the staff of the future.”
To that end, Bailey has made a series of high-profile hires and promotions inside TIFF, including the appointment of Beth Janson (former CEO of the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television) as chief operating officer, National Film Board producer Anita Lee as TIFF’s first ever chief programming officer, and Robyn Citizen as director of festival programming.
Bailey and his new team have also been busy trying to solve TIFF’s most stubborn challenge, one that dates back to long before the pandemic hit: how to get people inside the five-screen Lightbox outside 11 days every September. One big initiative was announced this past winter, with members now given free access to Cinematheque screenings, upward of 250 films per year. While staff are still processing new member registrations, which closed Aug. 29 ahead of this year’s festival ticket windows, TIFF counts just more than 7,800 members as of Aug. 15.
Meanwhile, this past spring TIFF introduced its Under-25 Free Pass, which gives all the benefits of membership to young adults at no charge.
”With those two things in place, we’re significantly increasing our audience, with member attendance more than doubled,” Bailey says. “If you give people access, they become curious about what else is going on here, and they seek out more cultural experiences.”
As to whether Bailey is satisfied with his first year of running the show solo, well, “you’re going to have to ask me that Sept. 19. But so far, I’m proud of the team who have risen to the occasion of an immense challenge.”
The 47th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 8 through 18 (tiff.net)
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