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TIFF 2018: Piers Handling on 24 years at the top of the biggest film festival in the world, and what’s next

On Sept. 17, after the last movie has screened and the lowest tier of celebrity has hightailed it out of town, things will go back to normal for those working at the Toronto International Film Festival’s headquarters – except for the man at the top.

The 43rd edition of TIFF will be the final one for Piers Handling, the organization’s director and chief executive for the past 24 years. Few, if any, comparable arts organizations have witnessed such a long executive tenure, making Handling’s departure both anticipated and unprecedented.

Read more: The Globe’s guide to TIFF 2018 movies

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The challenges facing Handling’s successors – on Aug. 28, TIFF named Joana Vicente, formerly director of the New York-based Independent Filmmaker Project, as the organization’s new executive director and co-head, serving alongside Cameron Bailey as artistic director and fellow co-head – are myriad: diminishing box-office returns across North America, the rise of streaming services and digital downloads, an ever-evolving and unpredictable marketplace. Before TIFF’s most manic stretch of the year kicks off Sept. 6, Handling sat down with The Globe and Mail for a wide-ranging, in-depth conversation about a career shaped by, and spent shaping, cinema.

You said you started thinking about leaving TIFF in the winter of 2016. Why was it time to step away?

Piers Handling.

For one thing, I wasn’t as busy any more. I’d given away a lot of authority over the past few years. When we stepped inside here [the TIFF Bell Lightbox in 2010], I wondered how long I was going to stay. I wanted to see it through the first years of its life, and I’m not sure we got it absolutely right, but we stabilized it. I’m also approaching 70, and you feel, hey, there’s a finite period of time you have left. And I’m leaving at a moment when the generation of filmmakers I grew up with, they’re arriving either at the end of their careers, too, or they’re dead. The art-house cinema that I valued the most, especially foreign-language cinema, is becoming harder and harder to get out there, with the focus on awards season. I’m happy to have fought that fight for the 36 years I’ve been at TIFF, but you feel like your time is done.

In terms of that growing emphasis on awards season, though, how do you see TIFF’s role in having advanced that?

The awards came into our life as early as [1983′s] The Big Chill. The festival wasn’t obsessed with awards, but it was increasingly important, and the landscape totally changed in the 90s, as studios got more comfortable using festivals, largely because of the great unnameable, Harvey Weinstein, who revolutionized the way award campaigns were run. Toronto now tees off the award season because it’s basically a free press junket for North American media.

What was your impression of the organization when you joined as a programmer in 1982?

I was just a cinephile who wanted to see as many films as possible. I didn’t think I was going to fit into the festival, as my inclinations were more academic, and this was showbiz – well, more showbiz than I’d been used to. But [festival director Wayne Clarkson] gave all the programmers – David Overby, Peter Harcourt, Kay Armatage – the opportunities to do things we wanted to do. It was like a start-up: irreverent, fun, endless hours.

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Do you recall the first film you programmed?

Not one film, but Wayne sent me to Rio, and I brought back 21 Brazilian films, a nice eclectic selection. I was there for two weeks, but we couldn’t screen during the day because it was the World Cup, 1982, and the city was closed down. The projectionist just went home. So we went to people’s houses to watch the movies with them. It was phenomenal, and I got to meet so many key Latin American names. It’s not that I’ve met everyone I’ve wanted to meet over this career, but pretty close.

Who’s missing?

I never met [Ingmar] Bergman. Or [Robert] Bresson. I didn’t really meet [Michelangelo] Antonioni. If you asked me to name the three most important filmmakers in my life, it’s those three. It’s extraordinarily exciting to realize you were intersecting with their careers. It’s a collaborative sort of relationship, and after a while, the relationships you develop are very strong. And sometimes you’re showing not their best films – just to keep that relationship alive.

Are you bullish on the future of the theatrical experience? This recent quote from David Cronenberg has been rattling in my head, in which he says the theatre is “no longer the cathedral that you go to where you commune with many other people.” And here we are at the Lightbox, with its five year-round theatres.

I believe that we may be in a transitional moment, where institutions like the Lightbox become analogous to museums, which is a sad thing to say when talking about cinema, which is only 100 years old. As opera was a public form of art in Italy, it’s now institutionalized. But in those opera houses, you see the best opera produced by the most extraordinary artists in the world. I think film will institutionalize itself that way because it’s too powerful a medium not to. There will be institutions like the British Film Institute, TIFF, MoMA – places that will become beacons of memory and also where new films will be shown. The great difference about TIFF is that none of those other institutions has a festival with the prominence we have. That’s why we’re different than Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance.

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When you opened the Lightbox in 2010, you said it would “put Toronto on the international map year-round,” becoming a “magnet.” Do you feel that’s happened?

I do. Nothing will ever have the energy of the festival, those 10 days. We’re still a young organization, and I wish we could do more. The BFI does such a better job on their publication program, and the intellectual heft they have in the English-language world is phenomenal. It’s hard to compare other institutions because I don’t want to put them down, but the unique combination of our festival and the building will continue to attract audiences. The great unknown is how many kids will disconnect from their phones to see a film on the big screen. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m encouraged when we run 2001: A Space Odyssey every Christmas and it sells out. And once in a while you put together a program like Tarkovsky last fall, and Cinema 1 here was like a zoo. I was unprepared for that. Why did Tarkovsky hit and not Visconti? Hey, it’s the public.

But that’s a good question: Why? How much of a sense do you have of what’s going to take off at the Lightbox and what’s not?

If we all knew, we'd be running the studios.

Is there a role for TIFF in the digital landscape? The BFI has a heavy presence in streaming.

That’s for my successors to work out. Clearly we’ve been grappling with this, and it is a huge challenge. We don’t have an archive in the same way the BFI does. Do we have the heft to attach ourselves to a streaming service? There’s brand awareness to do something analogous to what Sundance has done. But all festivals are struggling with this issue and all have ventured into the digital arena, most without much success, from Tribeca to Cannes to Venice to ourselves. We don’t have the money and resources in the way major streaming services do. Where’s the space for TIFF within that? Is there a space? I’m not sure. That’s for Cameron [Bailey] and the next group of people to wrestle with – and good luck.

Another issue the festival has been wrestling with is the notion of TIFF being “the people’s festival” and the question of access. This year, TIFF expanded its reserved seating ticketing, which means higher prices. How do you reconcile that with the mission of TIFF – to make films as accessible as possible, to showcase them to as many people as possible?

To go to the movies is still a cheap ticket when you consider what you’re paying for sports or music. I think our steepest ticket for the festival is $50, for some of our premium screenings, where you have a red carpet, the stars …

This year, the Tier-A ticket price for reserved venues – Roy Thomson Hall, Princess of Wales, the Elgin, the Winter Garden – hits $75.

$75 is the top price? Well, okay, I thought it was $50. To be honest, I lost a bit of touch with that. I mean, that’s getting steep. It’s still comparable with what you’d pay to see theatre. And it’s obviously a unique experience because we’re providing not just the film but a whole bunch of excitement and razzmatazz. It’s exclusive, too, because we can only sell so many tickets. But we’ve always been incredibly sensitive about ticket prices, and it’s something we grapple with. We don’t want to lose touch with the audience, especially the core audience that’s followed us since the festival’s been around.

You say that Weinstein changed the game for festivals. When the allegations came out against him last year, did it cause you to re-examine TIFF’s dealings with Weinstein? How close were you with him and his company?

We were negotiating with him every year, as we did with every other single North American distributor and studio. We obviously in no way condone any of what happened, and we were the first festival to come out in support of the women who came forward. You have no sense of what’s going on in your festival behind closed doors and in hotel rooms. But we’ve tightened up and we’ve always had a sexual harassment policy in place, which we’re going to make more public. There will be a hotline to call, signage, a code of conduct. We take it very seriously.

Did the allegations shock you? There was always talk about him being a bully, certainly ...

That’s a tough question to ask because is there any behaviour that surprises me at the end of the day? You’re in the movie business. Go back to the old Hollywood studio bosses – read Marilyn Monroe’s memoirs for Christ’s sake. The casting couch syndrome goes back to theatre. Does it come as a surprise that there are people still continuing that bad behaviour? No. Does it come as a surprise that that’s the person? Yes. It’s something you wish would go away, and I have no idea if at the end of the day it will. I know the #MeToo movement is going to make great inroads, and all of us are clamping down. But it’s going to take more than one year, two years, to change the industry.

What do you think of Brian De Palma’s plans to make a Weinstein-inspired horror movie set during TIFF?

[Laughs] Well, Brian’s made a movie set in Cannes, and Harvey was here all the time … I’m not going to have to deal with the issue in my position as CEO, someone else will. Whether the film gets made or not, who knows? I was amused by it. I read that and thought, “That’s Brian being outrageous.”

Were you ever tempted to go elsewhere?

I was approached, but you’re running the most important, biggest festival in the world. Some approaches were to run institutions where I’d be an administrator, and I didn’t want to be an administrator raising money. I wanted to be the film guy who had the luxury and opportunity to run an institution with people around me who could do most of that work, exceptional fundraisers who know their business. This is one of the best film jobs in the world, and it’s allowed me to dream my own dreams.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

The 43rd edition of TIFF runs Sept. 6 to 16 (tiff.net).

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