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Picture Palace, a new, interactive exhibition at TIFF Lightbox, aims to educate visitors about each stage of the filmmaking process.Connie Tsang/Courtesy of TIFF

“Watch with your eyes opened wider.” So says the introductory text for Picture Palace, the new exhibit inside TIFF’s downtown Toronto Lightbox headquarters. The words act as both instruction and philosophy – each station inside Picture Palace aims to educate visitors on the filmmaking process (from sound to lighting to image) while also ideally sparking a deeper understanding of the alchemy that occurs when all the cinematic elements come together just so.

But the phrase also speaks to what Picture Palace represents to TIFF itself. Nine years after it opened the Lightbox, and about three years after it quietly backed away from the space’s once-grand gallery ambitions, TIFF is taking a new step toward defining just who it is for outside its September festival. And anyone with an interest in film should be watching, with their eyes as wide as possible.

Even before you step inside Picture Palace, it’s clear how different the project is from TIFF’s previous exhibitions. Right in the centre of the Lightbox’s lobby stands a giant 3-D set designed by Toronto’s Marian Wihak. With its colourful West Side Story-esque aesthetics and big block letters announcing the title of the exhibit, the piece invokes a golden-age-era movie poster, albeit one you can step inside of to take a selfie. It is the serious cinephile bona fides that TIFF is known crossed with something like the Happy Place, or any number of recent shiny pop-up installations that exist to explicitly satiate Instagram feeds. If this feels like a cynical reading, TIFF has placed several Instagram logos within Picture Palace, each noting the preferred social-media hashtag (#TIFFPicturePalace).

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The exhibition is deliberately Instagram-friendly, right down to its own preferred hashtag.Connie Tsang/Courtesy of TIFF

Inside, visitors are encouraged to put themselves further into the frame, whether by experimenting with lighting (“Step into the spotlight and watch how cinematographers, directors and technicians sculpt light to create dramatic changes in character and mood”), performance (“The best actors work with the intimacy of a camera up close to invite an intense connection with their audience. Are you ready for your close-up?”), or direction (“Prefer the limelight? Hit your marks, nail that performance and shine”).

Anyone expecting detailed placards on the work of David Cronenberg, Stanley Kubrick, or Grace Kelly – the subjects of previous Lightbox exhibitions – should be prepared to reckon with this new, more interactive iteration of TIFF’s gallery space: part class room, part playground. This was perhaps inevitable, given that those aforementioned efforts delivered increasingly diminishing returns for the Lightbox. When the building opened in 2010 with its splashy Tim Burton exhibit, on loan from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it drew 111,000 paying visitors over five months. The following year’s Grace Kelly: From Movie Star to Princess attracted 48,000, while Fellini: Spectacular Obsessions entertained about 10,000. In the fall of 2016, TIFF eliminated most of its exhibitions department.

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Visitors can experiment with lighting, performance and direction to get a hands-on perspective on the filmmaking process.Connie Tsang/Courtesy of TIFF

“I think what we learned in the years we had full exhibition programs is that some things work well with audiences, and less so in terms of the financial reality of putting on those shows, and there are ways to engage that are more sustainable,” says Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director and co-head, and curator of Picture Palace. “This is something we can do that delivers a lot of the same thing in terms of learning about the art of film, and try something interactive. Museums have learned this as well: Audiences aren’t so interested as they used to be in just going to a space and looking at objects and reading. These days people are looking for more than that.”

To go by the design of Picture Palace, that includes a tilt toward younger audiences – though not as young as the target demographic for TIFF’s family-friendly annual installation digiPlaySpace, which Picture Palace is replacing as part of the organization’s new focus on youth aged 14 and up. (Also retired: the annual TIFF Kids International Film Festival.)

“I wanted to find something that would be fun for teenagers and adults that would be in line with how people are going out and finding experiences they want to share, and less so audiences of kids and families,” says Bailey. “DigiPlaySpace worked well, but the audience had kind of plateaued for it. When we thought of what we could do well, and what could grow our audience in film as an art, it’s this age demographic that works best. It’s when you begin to shape your own thoughts on culture and figure out what you like. We wanted to focus on that area, and deliver more to that audience.”

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The exhibition is part of TIFF's new focus on young people aged 14 and up.Connie Tsang/Courtesy of TIFF

The shift is in line with TIFF’s five-year strategic plan for 2018-2022, an early draft of which, titled “Audience First,” was obtained by The Globe in 2017. At that time, one key action was launching a year-round attraction at the Lightbox that offered “a compelling attraction for Lovers and Seekers – to drive regular engagement with TIFF” and combine “learning-focused and experiential/interactive” (and also drive $500,000 in annual increase in revenue; weekday tickets to Picture Palace, which runs through July 28, cost $18 for non-members, $20 on weekends and holidays).

Picture Palace also opens a few days after TIFF held its first board of directors meeting with Bailey and Joana Vicente as co-heads, marking it, unofficially or not, as the first chapter in TIFF’s new era. (Bailey was named artistic director and co-head last April in advance of CEO Piers Handling’s December 2018 retirement; Vicente was named executive director and co-head this past August a few weeks after COO Michele Maheux announced her own retirement).

"We're putting the team in place that we want, especially in the senior level of the organization, and looking at everything in terms of what we need to focus on most," says Bailey. "We're making sure we go back to that strategic plan, which is to serve the audience, and we are doing everything we can to do that."

And if the audience of today wants to experience, and not just observe, cinema, then TIFF’s Picture Palace will be happy to oblige.

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