It is the day after the Toronto International Film Festival’s first staff retreat with its refreshed leadership team – up in Kleinburg, Ont., an hour north of the city – and Anita Lee is eager to get down to business.
As the chief programming officer for TIFF, Lee maintains a relatively bare-bones office but a head jammed of encyclopedic film knowledge. As she goes through every program and possibility that TIFF has in store – Seijun Suzuki, Hayao Miyazaki, but also [redacted] and even [redacted again, but trust me, it’s a good one] – Lee projects the air of a highly, intimidatingly organized cinephile.
Now one year into her TIFF role, the National Film Board veteran faces a challenge both familiar and fresh for the organization: How do you get people inside TIFF not just during its vaunted annual September festival, but the other 355 days of the year?
The question has been central to TIFF’s existence since it opened its five-screen Bell Lightbox headquarters almost 13 years ago. But the issue is now being debated, analyzed and dissected in a more thorough and fierce fashion than ever before, thanks to Lee’s new position within the organization, in which she is charged with both festival programming and everything else that goes on inside the Lightbox (previously, TIFF would have one artistic director for the fest, another for the multiplex itself).
“Many things about the festival work very well, and year-round, well, the cultural institution has, even [CEO Cameron Bailey] has said, gone though peaks and valleys,” Lee says. “My goal is to move forward a vision where TIFF can be a cultural hub. For audiences, but also artists, creators, communities and the industry.”
Alongside her team, which includes Robyn Citizen as director of festival programming and Cinematheque, Lee hopes to fully tap TIFF’s year-round potential. Or, in her words: “I see the reason behind the madness, and so now I’m trying to bring the method to the madness.”
One step in that direction is TIFF’s new spring series POP Japan. The series aims to make room for the art-house fare that attracts its Cinematheque crowd (six newly restored 35mm prints from the aforementioned Japanese master Suzuki, including 1966′s Tokyo Drifter), but also draw in cult audiences (the nine-film retrospective World of Anime, featuring such classics as Akira mixed in with 2016 mega-hit A Silent Voice), and families (a four-film tribute to Spirited Away director Miyazaki). Like other Cinematheque screenings, all the POP Japan titles will be free to TIFF members.
“Over the past 18 months, Cinematheque has been focused on developing those key relationships with film archives, consulates and other institutions that are necessary to bring these kind of series and retrospectives here,” says Citizen, who stepped into her position in January, 2022, after serving in various TIFF programming roles for the past five years.
POP Japan, which runs May 10 to June 27, echoes TIFF’s previous focuses on nation-specific cinema – such as last year’s Summer of Seoul – but with a finer attention to detail on both the development and audience sides of the programming equation.
“We’ve previously programmed movies in theatres that were too small, we could have had repeat screenings of titles that were in-demand, and audiences needed information with a much longer lead time,” says Lee. “We’ve heard from people that they would have loved to see this or that film, but didn’t realize that they were even happening. We have to be more consistent in how the films are presented, when they’re promoted, and when audiences can purchase tickets.”
POP Japan is also representative of TIFF’s ongoing mission to expand perspectives and access to international cinema while also, as Citizen says, “diversifying the canon.”
“For Cinematheque, our ethos has to build upon our legacy as a cultural institution but to also look at everything that has come before us and making that canon more inclusive, to put underrepresented communities and filmmakers back on the critical map,” she says.
Under Lee and her team, there is also a stronger emphasis on crossing streams, so to speak. There is the festival strand, but also Cinematheque overseen by Citizen, theatrical/new releases (headed by Geoff Macnaughton) and public programming (led by Keith Bennie).
“Women Talking is a good example of finding more intersections,” says Lee. “The film was a premiere in our theatrical strand as a new release, but we took the opportunity there to do a mini-spotlight of films selected by Sarah Polley for Cinematheque. Then we had on-stage conversations with Sarah and [author Miriam Toews], which was set up in public programming.” (Polley’s film is so far the Lightbox’s No. 1 title of the year, earning $129,992 across its 12-week run.)
Meanwhile, a number of other initiatives are being pursued in the background, with the introduction of a new family matinee, the shifting of certain series to allow for a broadening demographic of audiences (Secret Movie Club, which debuts a surprise film weeks before its general release, was moved from Sunday mornings to Tuesday evenings), and new additions to the festival programming team to be announced soon. But most importantly, Lee and chief operating officer Beth Janson (who is also just celebrating her one-year mark at TIFF) are taking a hard look at ensuring that all their efforts are noticed outside the Lightbox, too.
“There is a larger marketing strategy underway, which involves a significant refresh of the website,” Lee says. “There is programming, but there is also the communication and presentation of that programming, which needs to go hand in hand. There is so much great talent on the team here, and we can go interesting places if we can come together and play to our strengths.”
POP Japan runs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox from May 10 to June 27 (tiff.net).