When Piers Handling, director and chief executive of the Toronto International Film Festival, announced his impending retirement this past September, most industry players inside and outside the organization agreed that artistic director Cameron Bailey was the heir apparent.
On Thursday morning, that prediction came true – in part. With the introduction of a new two-headed leadership structure, TIFF’s board of directors has promoted Bailey to the newly created position of “artistic director and co-head.” Bailey, who’s held the role of artistic director since 2012 and was festival co-director for four years before that, will now report directly to the board effective Oct. 1, a couple of weeks after the conclusion of TIFF’s 43rd annual festival.
“In January of last year, I took on the artistic direction of the entire organization beyond the festival, so this role expands that,” Bailey said in an interview Thursday morning. “The most significant change for me is that with the departure of Piers, when it comes to the artistic direction of the festival, the buck will stop with me. Piers built an incredibly strong foundation for us, so my job is to sustain and build that.”
As part of TIFF’s new leadership structure, Bailey will focus on the artistic direction of the organization, while the incoming managing director and co-head will concentrate on business and “revenue optimization,” according to TIFF.
“The organization needs the next big thing, and it looks like the board has come to the realization that working toward an aspiration that’s larger than straightforward continuity requires two different leads,” said Brendan Calder, a former TIFF board chair, in an interview Thursday. “But when you have co-heads, the key is to agree on decision rights. It’s easy for Cameron to choose this movie or that movie, and for the incoming co-head to charge this sponsor X and another sponsor Y, but what happens when there are decisions that require buy-in from both? That’s the key thing that has to be clear going in, not worked out over the years.”
It will be all the more critical given that TIFF, both as a festival and year-round institution, faces myriad challenges. Attendance at the institution’s gleaming downtown Toronto Bell Lightbox theatre, for instance, has plunged – 49,000 fewer visitors in 2016, a drop of 27 per cent – and the festival continues to face competition for hot titles and buzz from the similarly timed Venice and Telluride festivals.
“The good news is that we have a new five-year strategic plan, which I was involved in shaping and that started this past January,” said Bailey. “The focus is audience. Toronto has the best film audience in the world, and I want to make sure we’re giving them the best of whatever they want and that we’re listening to them. I want to make sure TIFF reflects what audiences are looking for now and be able to reach them wherever they are. Not just watching movies at the Lightbox, but at home, on the streetcar – I want to find ways of reaching them everywhere.”
Like Handling, Bailey arrived at TIFF with a wide knowledge and appreciation for the art of film. In an interview with The Globe three years ago, Bailey recalled getting his first taste for the limitless power of cinema while studying English at the University of Western Ontario. “It was a contemporary cinema course, which began with Godard’s Breathless,” said Bailey, who started out as a film critic before joining TIFF’s programming team. “It then went everywhere but Hollywood, so it was Asian cinema, it was Latin American and Brazilian Cinema Novo, it was Italian and African film. That introduced whole new worlds to me.”
Handling, who has been director and chief executive of TIFF since 1994, said in a statement that, “I have tremendous respect for Cameron and his longstanding contributions to TIFF’s success. His passion and vision for the future of the organization underlines his deep leadership skills. It gives me great comfort to know TIFF is in such good hands.”
TIFF’s board is working with Caldwell Partners to recruit candidates for the other co-head role, and an announcement is expected before the start of this year’s festival, which begins Sept. 6.
“You’re going to have to have somebody who understands the alchemy of art and commerce,” said Barry Avrich, a filmmaker and former TIFF board member. “If they pair Cameron with somebody who understands the challenges of the new world of film exhibition and technology, and specifically the business of keeping that building full, I think that could be a brilliant combination.”