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The 2020 edition of Toronto’s Inside Out Film Festival was supposed to be Andria Wilson’s worry-free victory lap. As Toronto’s third-largest film festival in a city positively drowning in them – only TIFF and Hot Docs pull in more attendees annually – Inside Out has over the past few years transformed itself into an industry leader, in no small part thanks to the drive and innovation of Wilson, its executive director since 2016.
Last year’s edition featured films both big (the Elton John biopic Rocketman) and small (the acclaimed Showgirls documentary You Don’t Nomi), plus an impactful film-financing forum and the kick-off of a crucial four-year funding partnership with Netflix. With one eye trained on her next move in the film production world, Wilson was set to oversee the organization’s 30th-anniversary edition this past spring, secure in the knowledge that Inside Out was stronger than ever – and would safely continue its momentum for years to come without her. But then everything changed.
Ahead of the festival’s rescheduled, reimagined and mostly virtual 2020 edition, which runs Oct. 1-11, Wilson spoke with The Globe and Mail about the importance (and annoyance) of pivoting, the power of community and the privilege of overseeing her final Inside Out.
Why now? Why leave Inside Out after just four years?
So many reasons. There’s been no way to describe this year that hasn’t been some kind of cliché. Every time my team uses the words “unprecedented” and “pivot,” we have to put a quarter in a jar. When I came in, though, I was committed to seeing what could be accomplished in a three- to five-year stint, and we developed a three-year strategic plan. When I was updating it in early 2020, we were very close to being 100 per cent there. My predecessor here was in the role for 16 years and did exceptional work, but I think these leadership roles need high impact and vision, and there are so many people in this country who could lead this organization in a direction that I never dreamed of. It feels like the right time for a visionary leader who is also more reflective of the communities that Inside Out is committed to showcasing.
This feels like it’s an extension of what we talked about last year, when you said that growing Inside Out wasn’t about the number of films programmed or attendance levels, but how the festival can meet the needs of its community …
I think in the past few months, the festivals and organizations that have made it through this period with strength and with integrity have been the ones that have doubled down on their mission and values. That’s what I want for Inside Out going forward. It’s not how big is the program or how splashy is the opening night, but more what are we doing? How are we supporting filmmakers in the day-to-day? One thing we were able to do this year is take our RE:Focus Fund [which offers financial support to LGBTQ women and non-binary filmmakers] and expand it into COVID emergency relief. It’s one tiny piece of the equation.
Philanthropist Martha McCain has committed $50,000 to cover that fund for two years. Has Inside Out cultivated other donors to ensure its continuation?
We launched a campaign for a new fundraising initiative called “Queer Film Is Essential!” that directly flows into that fund, and the response has been very moving, even throughout all the challenges of the year. We’re planning on continuing with RE:Focus through 2022 at this point, and still securing additional commitments.
This year’s festival features 38 full-length features and nine episodic television series, which is about on par with 2019. But your short program is 112 titles, more than three times the selection of even TIFF this year. Are you concerned about the size?
We’ve very extra, is the truth about that. When we had to make the decision to postpone, that huge week where everything exploded, we were very close to having our full program locked. We had 100 shorts locked. We decided with the postponement, we wanted to honour all those commitments. There is some risk in the size of the program, but so far our sales are essentially in line with where they were for the in-person festival last year, which is deeply fascinating. In terms of numbers, everybody was projecting in the dark. Nobody knew what the uptake would be like. I’m knocking on wood as I say this, but we’re feeling strong about engagement and box office, even with a program of this size.
The festival titles are geo-blocked to Ontario audiences only. Were there efforts to make the screenings available across the country? Not to again compare to TIFF, but …
We decided to stick to Ontario for a few reasons. One is that we still have viewing caps on these titles, so our negotiations with filmmakers were built on how many seats in a theatre we’d be able to offer as a starting point, like always. For us to go Canada-wide, it would shift that industry-standard model. And personally, one thing I feel strongly about is the opportunity for other community- or LGBTQ-based film festivals across the country to be able to serve their own markets. If we rolled out a fully national marketing strategy for 150 titles, the folks who are doing exceptional work in Calgary and Vancouver and on the East Coast would have challenges negotiating for those films. I don’t want to be the big Toronto festival rolling into town.
You’ve recently launched Baby Daal Productions with your wife, filmmaker Fawzia Mirza. What do you hope to achieve there in the next phase of your career?
So I got married this year to my incredible wife, who I met at Inside Out in 2017, and I’m incredibly passionate about the projects she has in development. On Sunday night, we wrapped a short film that has a pre-licence for CBC, which she wrote and directed and shot with a predominantly queer women of colour crew. I’m just incredibly excited for what’s next.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Inside Out runs Oct. 1-11 (insideout.ca)