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Open this photo in gallery:Exteriors of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, are photographed on Aug 31 2020. Located on King St. West in downtown Toronto, the Lightbox has been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by Fred Lum / The Globe and Mail

The TIFF Bell Lightboxin downtown Toronto.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Step outside the TIFF Bell Lightbox in downtown Toronto, and you’re likely to hear the steady, clanging drone of construction. But as annoying as that hum might be, it represents opportunity for the Toronto International Film Festival.

“There are tens of thousands of condo units being built in the immediate vicinity, and we want to turn those people into film fans,” says Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s chief executive. “We want to bring them into the building.”

When TIFF cut the ribbon on the Lightbox nearly 13 years ago, the proposition of getting audiences into its five-screen multiplex outside of the 10-day annual September festival was, Bailey acknowledges, a “gamble.”

“Would people come year-round? We have 1,300 seats in the building, and trying to fill those, we honestly went through peaks and valleys.”

Those highs and lows included the opening of a much vaunted first-floor gallery space, which would close in 2016, and daily programming whose success would oscillate according to the whims of the theatrical market, which has only become more challenging in the streaming-war era. And then there was the pandemic, which shuttered the Lightbox for 18 months, presenting what Bailey calls an “existential threat” to the building’s survival.

But if the film industry must undergo a reinvention, so, too, will the Lightbox. This spring and summer, the crown jewel of Canada’s glitziest arts organization will undergo an “elegant reimagining” of its third-floor space with the goal of making it, according to Bailey, “a true gathering place for people who love movies.”

Overseen by the Toronto-based group DesignAgency, the renovation involves several elements. First is the installation of a large new public-facing digital screen, which will feature work by Canadian artists commissioned by chief programming officer Anita Lee and her team. There will be new seating outside Cinemas 4 and 5 to encourage lounging. And a cafe-bar space will open in the Bell Blue Room member’s lounge, which will now be available to the public, with longer hours. (It will be operated by TIFF, with Oliver & Bonacini Hospitality retaining its restaurant operations on the first and second floors.)

“We want to keep people in the building longer and more often. The hard-core cinephile audience already congregates on the third floor, because that’s where our Cinematheque screenings are traditionally held,” Baileys says, referring to TIFF’s year-round program of curated series and retrospectives. “But cinephiles aren’t born. We want to encourage everyone to use what will be a beautiful environment and spend time there.”

As a result of the renovations – the cost of which TIFF would not disclose – Cinemas 4 and 5 will be partially closed until the start of the festival in September, albeit with breaks to accommodate Hot Docs premieres and other commitments. TIFF’s Cinematheque screenings will be held either in the second-floor Cinema 3 or inside the fifth-floor Cinema 6, the latter of which has until this point been reserved for TIFF employees and private bookings.

With TIFF in its second year of its current three-year strategic plan (titled “Reinventing the TIFF Bell Lightbox Experience”), Bailey and his recently refreshed leadership team, including Lee and chief operating officer Beth Janson, felt that now was the right time to endure some “short-term pain” for long-term gain. As to why TIFF is focusing on its third floor and not its larger, more public-facing first-floor space, Bailey says that he wants to use this project “as a tangible pilot for further work that we’d do, but not as soon as next year.”

In addition to the renovation, TIFF announced a number of other institutional initiatives Friday, including new membership levels (the structure and pricing of which hasn’t changed since 2015) and a partnership with OCAD University that will bring students into the Lightbox’s learning spaces and see their work showcased inside TIFF’s public spaces.

These moves follow a string of efforts made by TIFF over the past year to expand and diversify its audience, including introducing its “Under-25 Free Pass” and allowing paying TIFF members free access to the Lightbox’s 300-plus annual Cinematheque screenings. (TIFF currently has 10,345 paying members, and more than 9,000 in its U-25 program.)

“Younger and more diverse audiences are part of our strategic goals. Who is our new release audience? Who is our Cinematheque audience? Who is the special-event audience? We need to be thoughtful across our various streams to have that big impact,” says Lee, who plans to increase the number of free Cinematheque screenings this year to upward of 375. “Also, this past fall and winter we had one of our strongest new-release seasons.”

But while TIFF saw success with its 12-week run of Sarah Polley’s Women Talking (the Lightbox’s No. 1 film of the year so far, earning $129,992) and other Canadian releases (including Chandler Levack’s micro-budget comedy I Like Movies, which has earned nearly $30,000 in just two and a half weeks), Bailey and his team recognize that new art-house releases alone cannot support the building.

“We’re fortunate that we can provide that mix with the Cinematheque titles, special screenings, and events,” Bailey says, mentioning the buzz brought into the building for such red-carpet Toronto premieres as Babylon. “And commercial movies, now and then we might play something. But people want to have the experience of seeing art in the cinema as well. When the Oscar nominees for Best Picture were announced, we played a lot of them, and the ones that did best for us were the artier ones like Tár. That tells us who we’re serving.”

On the crucial marketing front, TIFF has ceased such initiatives as its 180° magazine, but it is actively reworking its digital branding and editorial strategies, starting with its website.

“There’s so much that happens here that’s under the radar. The questions that we need to ask are around how we get to know our audiences better, how we collect data and use it to attract new audiences,” says Janson, who, like Lee, is about one year into her role.

And while TIFF continues to put a spotlight on its digital TIFF Bell Lightbox video-on-demand service, the focus going forward will be on all things in-person.

“COVID emphasized the importance of the in-person experiences we can offer,” Janson says. “Not to get too highbrow, but the online space is very divisive and there’s a need for us to come together as people to agree or disagree. Art plays that perfect role, and that’s central to what TIFF is, both at the festival and year-round.”

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