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Piers Handling, CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival. (Fred Lum)
Piers Handling, CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival. (Fred Lum)

Leadership: Piers Handling

The two films that changed Piers Handling's life Add to ...

Piers Handling, a self-confessed "complete cinephile," considers himself a lucky man.

Although the author, Canadian film historian and CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) never aspired to be its director, after working at film organizations for decades "one thing just led to another" and he got the top spot. He acknowledges the job he's held now since 1994 is perfect for him and he's never wanted another.

"I'm passionate about what I do," says Mr. Handling, 61. "I completely believe in the mission of this organization, which is to transform the way people see the world through film. I love film. I just adore sitting in a dark room and being transported somewhere else and being completely challenged by the vision of the filmmaker."

Piers Handling, CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival.
TIFF chief Piers Handling on his perfect job 'I'm happy to make a quick decision but I want it to be very thoughtful'

As a student at Queens University in Kingston, Ont., Mr. Handling experienced that transformation himself. He watched a lot of films as a child, favouring comics such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, but the real revelation for him was seeing two films in the space of a week - Week End and Pierrot le fou - by director Jean-Luc Godard.

"Those two films totally changed my life," Mr. Handling says. "They were so intriguing, so different from anything I had seen. They were the first films I saw that actually engaged me intellectually as opposed to emotionally. I absolutely knew cinema was going to be a great, important part of my life."

He maintains a soft spot for those films to this day. Sifting through photographs in his office, he's delighted to uncover a framed photograph taken with Mr. Godard during an appearance at a TIFF event. While most of the movies Mr. Handling saw as a child, or as a teenager growing up in Europe, were all English-language films, Mr. Godard's were the gateway to world cinema: French, Italian, Latin American and Asian movies.

Another huge influence was Don Shebib's film, Going Down the Road, which opened commercially in 1970, just as Mr. Handling was starting to get interested in the medium.

"It was amazing because you knew all the locations in Toronto," says Mr. Handling, who went on to write a book about Mr. Shebib and another on key Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg. "I had never seen a film that was shot in Canada, apart from the National Film Board films. It was galvanizing for Canadian cinema and one of the most important films ever made in this country."

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As an arts administrator, Mr. Handling is a great believer in the strategic planning process and communicating that vision to his people. With about 180 full-time paid staff, which grows to another 450 seasonal employees during the festival, plus another 2,000 volunteers, it's challenging for Mr. Handling to keep them all headed in the same direction.

"I sometimes refer to it as the machine - the machinery of the festival," Mr. Handling says. "We do an annual plan every year as well as a three- and five-year strategic plan. For our annual plan, we make absolutely sure that the members of the staff are very clear on what their tasks are for the year, as well as the organization's goals."

Mr. Handling describes himself as an extremely collaborative person who enjoys discussion and debate. His decision making process is also very collaborative but it's changed as the organization has grown.

"When the organization was smaller, there was a team of about a dozen people," he says. "A lot of the decisions were not always collective but we certainly looked for advice. Now, because we're a much larger organization, the leadership of the executive team is only four people. So there are three people whom I seriously look to for advice when we get into tight corners. That's not to say that I don't reach out to my VP of communications or some of the artistic leaders of the organization. I certainly do. It depends on the nature of the decision to be honest. I'll often go to my board chair for advice or the board of directors.

"I tend to be very logical and methodical and very calm. I don't want to make an emotional decision. I want to take the time to think it through. I'm happy to make a quick decision but I want it to be very thoughtful. There is a lot of great debate and sometimes we don't get everybody on the same page, but after we've made a decision, we want to move forward as a group and support that decision."

As for refreshing his vision for the festival, Mr. Handling attributes much of his inspiration to the great amount of travel he does.

"I always find that incredibly stimulating," he says. "I get so many ideas by travelling to other festivals and film events, by meeting with other film people. A large part of it is just learning."

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