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People use a walking path near Ontario Place's Cinesphere, in Toronto, on Sept. 29, 2022. TIFF is putting its partnership with Therme Group on hold.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

The Toronto International Film Festival is “pausing” its partnership with Therme Group, the private Austrian company whose planned development of a large spa and waterpark at Ontario Place has raised the ire of opposition politicians and community advocates.

In August, 2021, TIFF and Therme announced a 10-year philanthropic partnership called The Cinematic Cities, which would focus on “promoting the role of art and film in creating more human cities.” The deal was to include such initiatives as a series of talks in which “city-builders and leaders” would discuss “how art and film promote the holistic growth of healthy, engaged cities and citizenship,” as well as cinematic art installations that “reflect on the ways film can capture our shared human experiences.”

The arrangement was given little notice at the time. But after Therme’s initial plans for the West Island of Ontario Place were released in late 2022 – designs that included a large underground parking garage that could hold more than 1,000 cars – the development championed by Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government came under intense fire, as did any organization or business associated with it.

Earlier this year, a grassroots advocacy group called Ontario Place for All released an open letter to TIFF urging the not-for-profit arts organization to sever its ties to Therme, arguing that the inclusionary values of TIFF were in opposition to “turning public parkland into a private waterpark.” Advocates also cited TIFF’s frequent use of Ontario Place’s Cinesphere, the world’s first IMAX cinema, whose architectural value Ontario Place for All argued would be “completely overshadowed” by the “hulking proposed waterpark.”

Asked what role Therme might play in the 48th edition of the Toronto film festival, set to run Sept. 7 through Sept. 17, TIFF’s chief executive Cameron Bailey told The Globe and Mail on Monday that Therme has “no involvement” in this year’s fest, and that the arts organization was “pausing on that partnership for now” and will revisit it next year.

“We’ve been listening to everyone with any opinions on this and we’ve been paying attention to the evolution of the project itself and just what all the different stakeholders have to say about it, including our own close stakeholders and members,” Bailey said. “So we’ve decided to get through this year’s festival and take another look at it next year.”

Noting that Therme had a presence at last year’s edition of TIFF, “well before the project was put in front of the public,” Bailey added that the pause would not result in any significant loss of revenue. “The scale of the partnership on the revenue side was not the major thing. It’s not why we got into it.”

In a statement Monday, Therme Canada’s senior manager of communications and public engagement Simon Bredin confirmed that “TIFF and Therme have agreed to pause the Cinematic Cities initiative. We look forward to revisiting the initiative in conjunction with the introduction of our Therme Art program into Canada in 2024.”

In a separate statement, TIFF’s vice-president of public relations and communications Judy Lung said, “The Ontario government is a long-standing supporter and funder of TIFF; we thank them and Therme Canada for their collaboration and their interest in promoting the value of the arts in enriching our city.”

Last week, Therme unveiled its “newly evolved” designs for the Ontario Place site, with a spa building 25 per cent smaller in volume than the one previously proposed, as well as four additional acres of parkland and trails.

However, a source close to the project, who The Globe is not naming because they were not authorized to comment on the situation, says that the decision to pause the relationship between TIFF and Therme predates the release of the revised plan.

The news of a pause in TIFF and Therme’s relationship comes a few days after it was revealed that the film festival’s lead sponsor Bell would end its 28-year partnership with the arts organization after this year’s edition.

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