A month before the Toronto International Film Festival welcomes all manner of on-screen drama and intrigue with its 43rd annual festival, one of TIFF’s biggest stories is playing out inside the organization’s Lightbox headquarters. On Friday morning, board chair Jennifer Tory announced that long-time executive director and chief operating officer Michele Maheux will be retiring in the summer of 2019.
"During my time with the TIFF board, I have had the privilege to see Michele's meticulous business acumen and people skills up close," Tory, who took on the role of board chair in 2016, said in a statement. "She is the epitome of a generous mentor and strong leader and through her hard work has helped build one of the finest arts organizations in the world."
The news comes almost a year after Piers Handling revealed he would be stepping down as TIFF’s director and chief executive officer by the end of 2018. Between that announcement last September and today, Cameron Bailey was promoted as artistic director and co-head, while TIFF continued to conduct a search for an incoming executive director and co-head.
Read more: The Globe’s guide to TIFF 2018 movies
Maheux has been with TIFF for three decades, starting out in the press office. She will dedicate her remaining time with the organization to “ensuring a smooth leadership transition” as Bailey expands his responsibilities alongside the other, yet-to-be-named co-head.
“We are most fortunate she has agreed to stay on to assist in transitioning TIFF’s new leadership team,” Tory said.
Maheux was unavailable for comment.
The challenges facing that new team are myriad. In the eight years since TIFF turned itself into a year-round institution with the opening of the five-cinema Lightbox complex, the film industry has changed dramatically. In 2017, theatre admissions in the United States and Canada fell 6 per cent from 2016, to 1.24 billion tickets sold – the lowest level since 1995. Meanwhile, the rise of streaming services and digital downloads, both mainstream and niche, has radically altered the business model for exhibitors, whether they are blockbuster multiplexes or art houses.
Last year, TIFF revealed that attendance at its year-round Lightbox cinemas plunged in 2016, with only 130,585 attendees compared to 179,653 the year before, a 27 per-cent drop. (Attendance figures for 2017 were not available at press time.) Meanwhile, the Lightbox’s once touted gallery space – designed to showcase the visions of cinema’s most iconic filmmakers – has no exhibitions on the horizon.
Still, the organization has made rebounds. In 2016, it reported a nearly $1-million deficit. In its 2017 annual report, released this past June, TIFF reported a surplus of about $1.5-million. And Bailey has touted the strength of the organization’s new five-year strategic plan for 2018-2022, part of which involves a “reimagining” of the entire Lightbox building. “We want to make sure the building is actually tuned to the audience segments we’re going after,” Bailey, who co-authored the plan with chief financial officer Doug Allison, told The Globe and Mail last summer.
Handling, who has known Maheux since the ’80s, when the two were working in Ottawa at the Canadian Film Institute, called the outgoing COO “my long-time adviser, confidant and friend” in a statement. “She is the engine that has kept TIFF running for decades, and her passion and dedication to film, the arts and most importantly, the staff, is second to none.”
Maheux, who was promoted to the position of managing director in 1998, will continue in her current role until Nov. 1, when she will focus on the transition of the executive team.
"I'm excited for the future of TIFF, and the new team at the top," Maheux said in a statement. "The organization is on a great path with a new five-year strategic plan, and a team passionate about the mission and vision."
TIFF will announce the incoming executive director and co-head prior to the start of this year’s festival, which runs Sept. 6 through 16.