From above, the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival should look familiar. There will be the usual Oscar bait (Tom Hanks in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Christian Bale in Ford v Ferrari), eagerly anticipated world cinema (Pedro Almodovar’s Pain and Glory, Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or-winning Parasite) and Canadian curiosities (Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour). But for those inside the organization’s Lightbox headquarters, TIFF 2019 will be an entirely new machine.
This September marks the first TIFF for new executive director and co-head Joana Vicente, who joined the organization this past November after serving as chief of the New York-based Independent Filmmaker Project. Vicente comes into a newly energized institution, with last year’s festival acting as the unofficial last hurrah for some of the organization’s most familiar faces, including long-time chief executive Piers Handling, chief operating officer Michele Maheux, vice-president of advancement Maxine Bailey and director of programming Kerri Craddock.
The changing of the guard will be critical if TIFF hopes to thrive in the ever-shifting industry landscape. Alongside artistic director and fellow co-head Cameron Bailey, Vicente needs to optimize revenue in a streaming-obsessed world and burnish a brand that, while world-renowned during 11 days every September, doesn’t shine quite as bright during the other 354 days of the year.
Attendance for last year’s festival hit a record 450,000, up 13,000 from the previous year. Year-round attendance at the Lightbox for 2018, meanwhile, was about 240,000, a figure that includes new releases, Cinematheque programming, special events such as Reel Talk and Books on Film, the Canada’s Top Ten and Next Wave mini-festivals, exhibitions and school screenings.
In the thick of TIFF’s busiest programming stretch, Vicente sat down with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz for a wide-ranging conversation about the future of the country’s largest, shiniest arts institution.
When you came into TIFF, what struck you as its most immediate challenges?
I knew that I was coming into an organization that has had the same leadership for over 30 years, so that’s always a challenge, but it was also why it was such an exciting opportunity to come in and, with Cameron, redefine where we should be. How do we position ourselves to be as relevant and vital as TIFF has been all these years? But I first wanted to listen and spend the time to hear not just from people inside TIFF, but from the industry, from different stakeholders, to get an assessment of where we are and what we can do better. That’s how I’ve spent the past six months.
And what does TIFF need to do better?
When you ask that question, you hope to hear, “This is how it could become more relevant.” In fact, it’s people saying they love TIFF and how it plays an important role. So I was like, “C’mon, tell me the truth.” And there are little things like, “You take too long to tell me whether my film is in the festival or not,” but that’s not important stuff. Over all, there’s a common thread of how can we make the Lightbox as exciting and relevant year-round as the festival is?
So that’s part of the redefinition?
Yes. So what’s the building 2.0 version in an era where we’re reading about the death of the theatrical experience? We all know that people still want to experience films with others and be immersed. How do we keep that consistent and make this a place with the hope that, no matter what’s playing, it’s going to be a great experience?
Have you found any answers to that question?
We have some ideas, but part of it is learning from the audience. We’re starting to understand what the priorities are. It’s not going to be a major transformation. We’re going to try things and listen to people, so it’s incremental. This is a living building, organizations are living organisms, so we need to evolve and respond to how people use us.
Your key responsibility is revenue optimization. Looking at TIFF’s annual report for 2018 that came out recently, it shows a $65,000 surplus compared to the previous year’s surplus of $1.5-million. How is revenue trending?
Long-term sustainability is my first priority. The organization has kind of plateaued for a little while. There was a huge period of growth after the Lightbox was built and we need to look at how all of our activities perform. We’re a non-profit, so there should be activities and programs that are not about revenue and exist because they are mission-critical. But maybe there are others that are not as sustainable and don’t need to exist. We’re developing [profit and loss statements] for each of the activities and programs, so that will be a filter to look at things. We’re also looking at new opportunities to generate more revenue, such as launching the TIFF Tribute Gala this year, which can be a sustainable fundraiser that can repeat each year.
One opportunity that didn’t make as much impact as TIFF was hoping was the Picture Palace exhibit, which closed two months earlier than planned this spring.
In theory, it makes sense that because this is an incredible home for cinema, you can have an exhibit that brings you that magic of film. As you know, I wasn’t here when [Picture Palace] was planned, but the idea was that this was going to be a pilot of something that could be year-round. Unfortunately, it didn’t resonate with audiences the way that we were hoping and we felt that once we recognized that, it was important to say it didn’t work out and let’s take all the learnings from it, rather than just pretend it’s working. The opportunity is here to look at how we can make that first floor more exciting and more accessible. We’re going to tackle it. I don’t have the answer today and I don’t know if I’ll have the answer in three months, but I’m committed to at least experiment until we get it right.
On the note of year-round programming, Lightbox attendance bounced back quite a bit in 2017 from the year before and was steady for 2018. How is it going so far this year?
There’s an upward trend. We’re being more nimble and flexible on plans, too, so if a film is not working, we’re not going to play it an extra week. And we’re looking at slot times and when films can make the most amount of money.
What is TIFF’s role in the digital landscape? In 2017, Piers talked about investing $700,000 in digital.
There was a decision to create a lot of content without a clear idea on how to monetize that, the idea being that if we build it, people will come. We’re trying to understand how we go beyond the building and connect with audiences outside through digital channels, but in a way that is sustainable. We’re looking at different opportunities and different partnerships, because we’d be better off not doing this alone.
The perennial question for TIFF is one of access to the festival. Ticket prices this year are slightly higher than last year across the board, with a ceiling of $76 for a ticket to “premium, tier A” assigned seating screenings. When I talked with Piers last year, he conceded that $75 was “steep.”
Accessibility is a really important thing for us, and we’ll always continue to make sure the festival is accessible to the people of Toronto, because these audiences make this festival what it is. We have free screenings, we have the award-winner screenings and we have the [weekday daytime under-25 tickets starting at $11]. It’s still, believe it or not, lower than a lot of international festivals, so we’re trying to find a balance between our own sustainability and giving access to people, considering what others in the field do and what the market can bear.
Talking about resources – government grants took a $1-million hit from 2017 to 2018. And Queen’s Park has put a tight leash on spending. Are you concerned?
I think that some of the money that came in for 2017 was linked to Canada 150 funds, so I don’t know if it’s exactly that we completely lost money. Of course there are small hits here and there, but I think we’re in a stable place. For a non-profit to be healthy, you need diversity in your contributed and earned revenue, and to ensure you have four legs to a table, so if one breaks, the table still stands.
There was chatter last year with TIFF showcasing eight Netflix productions. What are your thoughts on giving the big-screen experience to companies that don’t prioritize the same?
I think that’s their business of whether they prioritize it or not. Our job as a festival is to look at the films and look at them as cinematic experiences. Unfortunately, more and more films will be going directly to streaming and will never have a theatrical opportunity, unless there are places like TIFF that recognize the potential for the cinematic experience. We showed Netflix’s Roma here for more than 12 weeks, and it resonated with audiences who preferred to be immersed in that experience. We are platform-agnostic. And things are changing so fast. I see film festivals having to play that important role of creating that theatrical moment for so many films that won’t end up having proper theatrical releases.
Last year, TIFF unveiled a diversity initiative for media, allocating 20 per cent of festival press credentials to underrepresented writers. How did that go?
We’re going one step forward this year and creating a mentorship program, teaming veteran journalists and critics to help the newbies. And when Cameron and I went to Los Angeles and met with the studios and PR people, we made two arguments. One was media inclusion – that studios need different voices to talk about their products. But the other one was talking about the Canadian press. We’re a Canadian festival, and we need to make sure the Canadian press is well taken care of and included. It’s easier to prioritize the American press, but we all need to play together to make it work.
On the subject of playing together, how would you describe TIFF’s work culture? Two years ago, I talked with a lot of people there about burnout, overwork and a general feeling of being underappreciated. Cameron said he was going to look at re-examining how that works.
I think some of that is still there. Any transition is very hard for people. People might be excited by change, but they don’t like change. So it’s on me and Cameron to get people on-board. And any festival that needs to get a lot accomplished in a short period of time, there’s always a danger to have people work too much and too many hours. We’re trying to balance that – reducing shifts, bringing in more people to help. But at this point, I feel like the best we can do is be transparent, and acknowledge what’s going on and make whatever changes we can. We’re not going to solve it overnight, but person by person.
Is one of those changes going to be to the overtime policy? I believe staff can only take up to two weeks of lieu time, which can be limiting during the run-up to festival season.
We’re looking at trying to not put people in the position where they have so much overtime. People are so passionate and sometimes they’re the victims of their passion because they want to be around all the time, and then they burn out. We’re really trying to have that in people’s mind – that you have to have a balance.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
The 44th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 5 to 15.
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