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Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band follows Robertson from his early life in Toronto and on the Six Nations of the Grand River reserve, to the creation of legendary roots-rock group The Band.Courtesy of TIFF

It is no secret that it is getting harder and harder for independent films to find an audience in this country. Disruption of the market has led to some domestic distributors scaling back, and others to shuttering completely. And for the films that do manage to find an avenue outside the insular festival circuit, exposure can be hard-won, whether at the art-house or at the top of a streaming queue.

To help make sense of the landscape and boost its own brand on a national level, the Toronto International Film Festival announced Tuesday morning the launch of TIFF Selects, a new initiative with Bell Media’s Crave. The partnership will see the streaming service debut a selection of films that enjoyed their world premieres at this past fall’s TIFF, in what’s being touted as a “groundbreaking” workaround solution to an increasingly challenging distribution dilemma.

"You've seen what's been happening in the Canadian distribution sector – fewer and fewer of these movies are being picked up, so a lot of movies come into the festival and never come back," Cameron Bailey, TIFF's artistic director and co-head, said in an interview. "It's also clear that people are watching more movies at home or on mobile devices. This is an opportunity to bring original films to Canada, beyond Toronto."

For the program’s launch, 11 films that played the 2019 edition of TIFF will be available to stream for Crave subscribers under the “TIFF Selects” banner, all with either an international or genre-niche bent: Turkish thriller The Antenna, Icelandic drama The County, Nordic thriller Disco, Indian action movie Jallikattu, Spanish musical Lina from Lima, Rwandan drama Our Lady of the Nile, European coming-of-age drama Sole, Yugoslavian drama Stories from the Chestnut Woods and three Canadian titles: Quebec drama Antigone, rock ’n’ roll documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band and the gonzo dark comedy The Twentieth Century.

Bailey and fellow TIFF co-head Joana Vicente dreamed the idea up the summer before this past September’s festival, with Bailey drafting up a shortlist of festival selections which he thought might struggle to secure Canadian distribution. The pair then put the respective filmmaking teams in touch with Crave, with TIFF essentially acting as a curatorial middleman.

“For a lot of these films, it’s probably the only deal they’ll get in Canada,” Vicente said. “So we told the filmmakers there’s an opportunity here, we’re connecting you, and you guys take it away.”

Although TIFF already has a relationship with dominant industry player Netflix – in November, the streaming giant signed a three-year deal to invest in TIFF’s year-round industry programming – Crave felt like a natural home for the new project, given that the Canadian service is also home to “Best of TIFF,” a collection of 82 films (“audiences’ and critics’ favourites over the decades”) curated by Bailey.

“Take Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century, a movie with a very niche appeal that would never get a wide release in this country. Or Jallikattu, which would be very rare for a distributor in Canada to pick up. Now, millions of people can see it,” Bailey said. “Crave has got the reach across Canada.”

As for why the films won’t screen inside TIFF’s Lightbox multiplex before making their way to Crave, Bailey says that strategy “may be something that evolves out of this, especially with the Canadian films, like Antigone, which played TIFF’s Top 10 and was offered at least a week-long run here. In an ideal world, we’d be able to have the film at the festival, then a brief run at the Lightbox and then go onto Crave.”

"Otherwise," Vicente added, "we feel the theatrical experience happens during the festival, so this is for audiences across the country who didn't have the opportunity to see it then."

If the first slate of programming goes well, TIFF may partner with Crave annually, with Bailey selecting titles from the coming 2020 festival – TIFF’s 45th go-round – for streaming distribution next year.

“It’s a first step, but we’re excited to see how it grows,” he said. “This is all about trying to be where the audiences are.”