It has been a long, cruel winter for Canadian movie theatres and the audiences who love them, with no cinema perhaps more battered than the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. Faced with myriad challenges even before the pandemic hit, the country’s premier home for independent film has faced an 18-month closing, up-and-down capacity and concessions restrictions, and too many other seismic industry shifts to list here.
But as public-health restrictions lift and spring nears, the Lightbox is emerging with a renewed focus, solidified leadership and perhaps its strongest programming lineup since the building first opened its doors almost 12 years ago.
To start: TIFF announced late last year that members would receive free access to Cinematheque screenings in addition to annual benefits – meaning that, for the cost of $99 a year (less for those under 25 and seniors), members can get two free tickets to upwards of 250 screenings a year.
Introduced just a few days after long-time artistic director Cameron Bailey was named the organization’s new chief executive, the initiative felt like a giant, overdue step toward a genuine democratization of TIFF. More importantly: The membership change just might be essential to solving a long-standing Lightbox problem: getting people inside the building any day outside festival season.
“We’ve been talking about doing it for a long time, and while it seems straightforward, digging into what it requires shifts in how we deal with membership, running projections in terms of attendance and box office, it can get very complicated,” Bailey says in an interview. “It’s a bit of a coincidence that we’re opening the building back up around the time that I took on this position, but it felt like now was the right time to do it.”
Among the new free-for-members Cinematheque screenings are two monthly programs – Midnight Madness Presents and MDFF Selects – that each speak to the Lightbox’s goal of building and sustaining Toronto’s film community.
The monthly Midnight Madness program is a long-awaited offshoot of TIFF’s wildest festival showcase, which since 1988 has premiered all manner of provocative fare to an intensely devoted fan base. (I still fondly/nauseatingly recall my first MM screening: the 2001 premiere of Takashi Miike’s yakuza thriller Ichi the Killer, which came with a complimentary barf bag.) This new year-round iteration will screen established genre classics (including Hellbound: Hellraiser II, which opened the festival’s inaugural MM slate, and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2), but also lesser-known films that predate TIFF’s after-dark brand.
“This is an opportunity to explore the concept of ‘midnight’ movies, to expand the canon,” says Peter Kuplowsky, who has programmed MM since 2017, and is co-curating the new series with Liane Cunje, a former TIFF programmer now working with cult-film distributor Vinegar Syndrome. “It’s stuff we think was influential, or buried, or deserving of an audience that didn’t exist at the time.”
First up, on Feb. 26, is a restored 35mm print of The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean, a 1966 rock-and-roll freak-out film from director Juleen Compton about a teenage psychic.
“This was a lost film until recently, and it totally exhibits this classic ‘midnight’ energy because of how offbeat and surreal it is,” Kuplowsky says.
Two MM caveats worth noting: The monthly screenings will start far earlier than 11:59 p.m., and the series is also different in scope and sensibility from KinoVortex, the monthly genre series that Kuplowsky’s MM predecessor Colin Geddes brought to the Lightbox, running from 2018 through early 2020. “That’s very much Colin’s curatorship, and I hope he gets to do stuff like it in the future,” Kuplowsky says.
“Midnight films really bring the community together in one space,” adds Cunje. “It’s also important that we’re diversifying the canon. We have to bring in more women filmmakers and directors of colour. This genre has been a tough landscape for other voices to be heard.”
MDFF Selects has a similar bent toward underheard voices. An offshoot of the Toronto film production company of the same name headed by Daniel Montgomery and Kazik Radwanski (Anne at 13,000 ft.), the series is dedicated to connecting local audiences with the work of emerging Canadian and international filmmakers that otherwise bypasses the city’s theatres entirely. Running since 2014 in various spaces across Toronto, MDFF moved into the Lightbox in 2017, was forced into hiatus because of the pandemic and is now returning to a completely rewired indie-film theatrical-distribution reality.
“The best way to put it is that our mandate is pretty adaptive,” Radwanski says. “We’re playing catch-up to the pandemic, but also screening essential cinematic experiences. We’re adjusting to what is missing from Toronto screens.”
This includes coming screenings of Faya Dayi, director Jessica Beshir’s hypnotic documentary about Ethiopia’s lucrative khat trade, and Georgian filmmaker Alexandre Koberidze’s magical-realism drama What Do We See When We Look at the Sky? – two films that earned acclaim when they premiered on the international film-festival circuit last year, but have yet to screen in Toronto.
“Toronto needs to see exciting films, and from our experiences, we know how many hoops you have to jump through for a film to get a theatrical release here,” Radwanski says.
What’s happening on the screens is one thing, and what’s going on behind them is another. In June, 2020, TIFF cut 31 full-time positions after forecasting a revenue drop of 50 per cent because of the pandemic. Meanwhile, 2021 saw the departure of core programmers James Quandt (who retired in September after 31 years of leading Cinematheque) and Diana Sanchez (who stepped down as senior director of film in December).
“We are looking to find the right sized staff to deliver this year, not just at the festival but year-round. And we’re working on a new strategic plan to make sure that we have the right team for that,” Bailey says.
To that end, TIFF on Thursday announced a wealth of new hires and promotions, including the appointment of Robyn Citizen (who has been with TIFF’s programming team since 2018) as director of festival programming, and long-time Wavelengths festival programmer Andréa Picard joining TIFF full-time as senior curator, TIFF & TIFF Cinematheque.
“We’re in a pretty good position, but we’re not out of the woods yet. We have to see what the longer-term appetite is for going out to the movies again,” Bailey says. “But we got through the last two years better than we were fearing.”
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