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People pass the TIFF Bell Lightbox theatre in Toronto on Sept. 12, 2019.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Two months out from hosting what promises to be a wholly different version of its annual September cinema extravaganza, the Toronto International Film Festival cut 31 full-time staff positions across departments Tuesday.

“The pandemic has had a huge impact on every Canadian organization that welcomes audiences in large numbers. With our cinemas at TIFF Bell Lightbox temporarily closed since March, our festival affected by restrictions on travel and large gatherings, and a projected slow return to normal, TIFF has felt these effects. Combined, they have resulted in a forecasted 50-per-cent reduction in our revenue from 2019,” TIFF’s co-heads, Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey, said in a joint statement. “As a non-profit organization, we carefully considered how to manage the loss to our operating budget, while preserving as many jobs as possible and ensuring a sustainable business model.”

The move, which reduces TIFF’s full-time staff by 17 per cent, comes at a time when the institution is facing pressures both external and internal. Like every other arts organization in the world, TIFF has been knocked off its axis by the COVID-19 pandemic, with its five-screen Lightbox cinemas shuttered since March 14. The size and manner of its annual September festival, meanwhile, remain a question mark, though organizers in April told The Globe and Mail that the 45th edition of TIFF would run Sept. 10-20 as scheduled, with hopes for “a largely in-person experience.”

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Since the pandemic began this spring, film festivals around the world have opted to either cancel their 2020 editions (Cannes) or go either partially or fully online (Toronto’s Hot Docs, Montreal’s Fantasia, Austin’s SXSW). While it is too early to report whether those digital experiments have been successful, the absence of physical festivals, which include sponsored events and the impossible-to-price buzz of a live communal experience, has placed organizations big and small across the film industry in immensely complicated positions.

This industry-wide tumult is occurring at the same time that TIFF has attempted to reshape itself. This past November, the not-for-profit laid off 15 staff members across departments after a “comprehensive review” of its five-year strategic plan. This decision effectively removed TIFF’s focus on schools and family programs. (“It’s wonderful work, but it’s not core to what we do, and we had to make the difficult decision to wind that down,” Bailey said earlier this year.)

To wait the pandemic out, TIFF has experimented with virtual programming, including its popular Stay-at-Home Cinema series produced in partnership with Canadian streaming service Crave. But that initiative is not a revenue-driving one, and in addition to temporarily laying off 90 part-time staff in March, TIFF has enacted various cost-saving measures, including unspecified salary cuts at the executive, senior management and management levels; the cancellation of discretionary projects; utilizing the federal wage subsidy to cover a portion of its payroll; and launching the For the Love of Film fundraising campaign. (Figures from that campaign were not available at press time.)

“The global health crisis has led us to completely redesign our business and re-imagine our activities for both TIFF Bell Lightbox and Festival to continue to deliver on our mission to transform the way people see the world through film. ... We wish there was another way,” Vicente and Bailey said in their statement. “We have provided those that are leaving us with all the resources that are available to staff at TIFF, including compensation, full benefits, employee assistance and career transition support. All TIFF employees are respected team members and this is a heartbreaking decision.”

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