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TIFF 2019: A Personal Look at the Changing Face of the Toronto International Film Festival

Over the last several decades, the Toronto International Film Festival has grown to be the focus of the fall festival season in North America, an unparalleled Oscar prognosticator where the world’s press descends to generate buzz and find hidden gems. This year marks a formal transition, with longtime fest head Piers Handling and executive director Michèle Maheux stepping down. (Maheux contributed to this year’s programming and continues to provide guidance to the new team.. Former Artistic Director Cameron Bailey stepped into a co-head role with Joana Vicente, a veteran film producer and co-founder of HDNet. Together they have made significant changes, including an overhaul of the programming staff and working diligently to keep the momentum of the “Share Her Journey” project moving forward, situating the fest at the forefront of discussions regarding inclusion and diversity.

This is my 23rd festival as press, and as a ticket buyer, I started attending in the early 1990s. I am a product of this festival, in many ways, and what I do for a living, what I cherish cinematically, the friends I hold close and the things I love are all in many ways tied to TIFF. Over the decades, I’ve seen it change dramatically, taking over this city during its September run in ways I never would have dreamed. The two biggest elements to shape the festival under the Piers regime were the building of the year-round home of the fest, the Bell TIFF Lightbox, and the events of September 11, 2001, which changed the festival in the years to come. 

The dream of Lightbox was to make King and John streets the center of the film community in Canada’s largest city. The entire festival shifted south from its usual Yorkville locale, changing everything from key hotel locations to the venues where the majority of films screened. Enormous capital was expended, and debates about the efficacy of the organization are manifold. For the festival, the end result is a cluster of screenings all taking place in a general area, making for relatively quick commutes between venues.

The events of 9/11, from one attending rather than on the inside, solidified the notion that the festival prioritizes the first weekend. When those tragic events took place on a Tuesday, with many stranded in the city, it inadvertently shifted the thinking of these fest stays for subsequent years. Rather than spreading out major premieres throughout the week like Cannes and Venice, the schedule at TIFF shifted (or at least continued a trend) so the first weekend holds the vast majority of films that the international press would be considering, with later projections either repeat screenings, or the launch of more regional or less regarded fare. This shift also coincided with the ascendance of Telluride taking space from some of TIFF’s primacy in the fall calendar.

In 2019, TIFF presented 245 feature films, a drop of five from 2018. Bailey has continued to get his elbows out to secure premieres primarily during that first weekend, fighting hard to make sure that the splash of a red carpet and the attention of the world’s press remains firmly attached to this festival. While TIFF started as a “Festival of Festivals”, a greatest hits of world cinema, it’s trying with all diligence to help steer the conversation as much as reflect what’s going on elsewhere. Yet save for a few major exceptions – People’s Choice Award winner “Jojo Rabbit,” for example – several of the ballyhooed TIFF world premieres fell flat. Much of the best of the fest were films that also screened at other events, be they birthed as part of this year’s phenomenal Cannes slate, or screening days earlier in Italy or Colorado. “Parasite” and “Marriage Story,” the runner-ups for the top prize, premiered elsewhere, and even the Platform winner, “Martin Eden,” bowed at Venice before screening here in Toronto. 

There were exceptions of course – “Dolemite Is My Name” was a hoot, “Knives Out” is sharp and terrific, while “Bad Education” proved a very pleasant surprise. The likes of “Sea Fever” and “Sound of Metal” are exactly the kind of films you hope to be able to find amongst the fray, while “The Goldfinch” proved that this fest can equally be home to some of the most egregious films of the year. It’s difficult to say what effect this new cohort of programmers has had in reshaping their slate, especially given that the high-profile titles are conditioned entirely by what films are available to screen. 

Joker,” which took home the top prize at Venice, was one of the more controversial selections that some have called “dangerous” or “inciting”, while the Silver Lion winner “An Officer and A Spy” by Roman Polanski, or Nate Parker’s Scofini Section award winner “American Skin” (both directors formerly celebrated in festivals past), were notable absences from this year’s slate. Several European critics I spoke with bemused at what they felt to be an exclusion of quality in favor of avoiding controversy, a newfound chasteness in the TIFF slate.

As for how the festival functioned in 2019, the massive push to the opening weekend proved a challenge to some of the industry pass holders, including outside programmers who use TIFF as a way to pull their selections for future stops along the festival circuit. One told me that “the schedule seemed more frustrating in previous years,” where the first three days “seemed to have all my A and B list choices, meaning I missed a lot I was hoping to see.” Later sections had far fewer titles, they felt, and given that they pay for their badges, the frustration was palpable. “I get that there are distributor demands at play,” they admitted, “but I saw fewer films this year, and will likely have to program our fall fest based on buzz rather than personal reaction, so again, a bit frustrating.” It’s yet another challenge for an event that tries, to various degrees of success, to be a market, an industry showcase, a public festival, a place for gala presentations and a driver of social change, all at once.

Special note needs to be made about Michèle Maheux, who was always a warm presence at the festival but often her quiet manner belied her importance to shaping the fest. Her Q&As were often lively and engaging, and her presence was missed at some of the more awkwardly presented screenings this year, with meandering questions by some of the new senior staff who seemed uncomfortable in their public role. Maheux’s selections were among my favorites every festival year, and she continued to play a small role in developing this year’s slate. She has always been kind and engaging, a true lover of cinema and supporter of those of us that try to help bring attention to films from wherever they emerged. She has an extraordinarily keen eye for talent and peerless in finding that hidden gem to bring to the fore.

This year’s schedule did shift in another major way – Cineplex, the major theatre chain here in Canada and a major sponsor of TIFF for decades, made a decision in cooperation with the festival that any Netflix-produced film would not screen in their venue. Co-productions with Amazon Studios such as “The Goldfinch” were not affected. This meant that the likes of Lightbox and the other gala rooms would be used for major titles like “The Two Popes,” “Uncut Gems” and the like not only for public screenings but for press as well. Additionally, the vast majority of the A-list titles didn’t screen for press ahead of the fest, even if they had premieres at Telluride and Venice. The result was a claustrophobic schedule where significant titles overlapped.

Sarah Van Lange, Executive Director of Communications for Cineplex, explained that “there are hundreds of fantastic films screening as part of this year’s festival and with all those options we asked that our screens feature titles from studios who understand and appreciate the importance of the theatrical release model. We have a strong and longstanding partnership with TIFF and are proud of our role in creating memorable theatrical experiences for festival goers, now and for years to come.”

More so than any other year I’ve attended, the screenings this year saw the public debut take place before the first press screening. This resulted in an even more important scramble for public tickets, not always successfully. Above all, it meant that we journalists were occupying seats that normally a patron or member of the rush lines could have sat in. None of this scheduling challenge will be made easier when the Scotiabank theatre, the main Cineplex venue for the fest located just north of Lightbox, is to be torn down as part of Toronto’s usual mode of condo redevelopment. Concerns about how this will affect the schedule are all the more valid given that one previous venue, the Varsity Cinemas further North is a relatively significant distance from the Festival Street core, while another potential venue at Yonge and Dundas is used by a local university for classes during the day. Van Lange tried to alleviate these concerns, suggesting that “movie-lovers have no immediate need for concern,” and that “any plans to redevelop the land would be very, very, very long-term.” 

A TIFF spokesperson also tried to downplay the issue, stating that “TIFF is aware of the proposals and is in frequent discussion with Cineplex and our partners. This residential development will have a long planning period and is not expected to impact the Festival for a number of years. We will share our plans once they're in place.”

All these elements – the shifts in culture that TIFF is helping to foster, the changes in distribution, the ways that screenings are scheduled and promoted, the titles that get selected and the venues in which they screen – will shape this festival in the decades to come. The transition in executive is but one seismic shift that this organization, and cinema itself, is undergoing. Departures of senior staff throughout the group result simultaneously in fresh, new ideas and the loss of institutional consistency. There’s a year-round feeling that things are changing, not always elegantly, but that the drive is in a direction that speaks to a better and stronger future for both the local and international community of TIFF audiences. 

In order to get insight from the festival itself on this period of change I spoke to TIFF co-heads Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente. They reflect upon their first year in charge, and how they see the future of the festival continue in the years to come. 

Mark Cousins' "Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema." Courtesy of Dogwoof.

This year marks a significant transition from the Piers era. Can you articulate how you see this year being different from previous years? 

CAMERON BAILEY: This is my 23rd year as a part of the TIFF team. Piers hired me as a programmer and he was my boss at some point through all of those years. I feel like we're building on the foundation that he and Michèle Maheux established for the organization. The building that we're in is the product of their work. Joanna and I have a lot of responsibility entrusted in us to make sure that we build on that foundation and stay true to TIFF's mission and our ideals in terms of this being an audience festival, being accessible, and representing the richness and diversity of the city. 

Can you see one thing specifically that you think is fundamentally different now that you're on board?

JOANA VICENTE: I can point to some of the work that Cameron did with the new programming team, including bringing in new faces, where half of them are women. We sharpened the focus of each of the sections and I think it really paid off. I've been hearing from people that it feels very coherent and that people have seen movies that they love. There's a bit more focus on what all of those sections are. I'm really happy about the tribute gala, which is something that we are doing really for the first time. We are building on the fundraiser gala that we had last year to give tribute to Piers Handling, and we created this new event where we're celebrating talent at the same time that we're reminding people of what we do year round at TIFF Lightbox.

TIFF is playing its traditional role as a “Festival of Festivals”, but also through Share Her Journey and the other initiatives, it is driving the conversation about social change.

CB: Curating a film festival is a matter of putting a number of different overlapping factors into play when you're making decisions about films. We go on the art, the craft of the filmmaking, we go on many other things, in terms of what we think is going to resonate with our audience, what resonates with us as curators, and that can be in the story, the subject matter, and the urgency of the filmmaking as well. It's all kinds of different factors, it's never any one thing. We watched hundreds of films leading up to the selection that we made. We had a lot of conversations about just about every single film that we showed before we made a decision to invite, and we're really happy with the lineup. We never talk about films that aren't in the festival, it's really more about the ones that are here.

Cannes and Venice are responding to criticism by stating that they’re entirely focused on the quality and caliber of the film. When you have two films that are equally “good,” do you choose one over another for reasons that may be metatextual?

CB: Ideas like "good" and "quality" and "caliber" are not stable categories. These are things that we define, and we are constantly looking to redefinition. I've asked our programming team to interrogate those notions of what we may think of. What has been seen as good cinema has changed drastically, and has continued to change from era to era, from place to place in the world, from just individual to individual. So let's not take those things as absolutes, they're not. Let's talk about what we think is significant in terms of cinema right now for each year and we want to present to our audience. It's a much richer conversation I think when you don't take anything like that for granted. 

JV: Look at Mark Cousins’ documentary “Women Make Film” about revisiting the history of cinema through women filmmakers. It really gives you a completely different context on how you examine what is good, and what were the films that we had as being the most informative landmarks of the history of film. I think it is a question of perspective.

CB: If you watch the 14 hours of “Women Make Film,” or at least as much as you can, you will see an entire history of great cinema that was just erased shortly after it was made and other cinema was elevated in its place. Why? Because of gender bias. So, if you look at cinema in a different way, suddenly you begin to see different things emerge. 

There are people upset that you are showing “Joker.” There are people who feel that film should not be shown here because whatever conversation it has to contribute, they feel it is not a conversation they have had too often, or don’t want to be challenged again. Other films, meanwhile, challenge in different ways. Are you no longer programming films by a filmmaker that would make your lives as festival directors more difficult because you would have to justify whether or not it conflicts with a particular perspective that the festival has? 

CB: I think what we can say is that as programmers we welcome the complexity of the conversation that has to be had in cinema. It can't be simplistic. Some of the things you raise do come up with some of the films we're looking at, and we have to just dive right into that and not be afraid of having difficult conversations. But we've got a great team of programmers who are well versed in these ideas and are ready to take them on.

To be clear, then, you're not making easy choices for the sake of maintaining a brand.

CB: No.

JV: Absolutely not. 

This speaks to a concern, valid or not, that people are going to become cynical about the call for change and reject something they feel has been selected solely for additional factors. 

CB: It's gotten probably more complicated. I think it's a more complex cultural landscape than maybe it was years ago, but I think that's a good thing. I think it's overdue in fact. 

Can you talk about that changing landscape and the relationship between your major media sponsors, Bell and Cineplex, and major year-round contributor to this festival, Netflix?

JV: Cineplex is a great supporter of TIFF and the festival and a long-time partner. They had new restrictions around which films would be able to show at the Scotiabank that had to do with the plans for the theatrical release and if they were going to follow a traditional theatrical release, so we adapted and we scheduled all of those films at the TIFF Lightbox. Obviously it's a conversation that is ongoing, and things are changing very fast in the industry. This year it was totally manageable - it was a challenge but it was manageable. But if more films continue to come from those platforms, then we will absolutely need to revisit and have that conversation. It's fluid, and we obviously appreciate the support that we get from our sponsors and we will continue to work with them to deal with these new challenges. 

Are you feeling like this is now your home? 

JV: Yes. Absolutely. I'm nine months in and really feeling embraced by the city.

What do you see this festival looking like in five years?

CB: I'm most interested in what the city will continue to bring to the festival five years from now. This is an incredibly dynamic city that's changed so much in the years that I've been here. It's almost unrecognizable to when I was a kid here in Toronto, and I want to see more of that happening. I want to see more of what the city is - the diversity, the range of languages and cultures and expressions in more of the festival. I think it will be something that will resonate really well. This is a rich, fertile ground that the festival can draw on, and as we're doing that, we're drawing on the entire global cinema landscape. It's been great to see filmmakers coming from just about every continent and showing films, and having those films play well for the Toronto audience. It's such an enthusiastic audience that knows movies. So if we keep doing that, then we're going to grow together. 

JV: TIFF is an audience-first festival. I really feel that festivals will have to have a vital role to play in the landscape. There will be less art-house films having theatrical distribution, so places like the Lightbox and the festival are absolutely central to provide that special experience where the film is presented in its best format with an audience. 

Jason Gorber

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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