As the red carpet is rolled up for another year, Canadian filmmakers can sit back and consider whether the Toronto International Film Festival has raised their projects aloft – or merely deflated them. Will that honourable mention from the prestigious Platform program’s jury plus some strong reviews keep the momentum building for Kazik Radwanski’s Anne at 13,000 ft? Can Albert Shin’s Niagara Falls thriller Clifton Hill hope for continued international exposure based on the flashes of interest that emerged during the 11-day event? Will Atom Egoyan’s Guest of Honour recover enough from mixed reviews both here and at the Venice Film Festival to reach Canadian audiences?
A new study of TIFF’s industrial and professional impact raises such questions and reveals that the festival is not necessarily a blessing for Canadian film. The study was commissioned by TIFF, underwritten by Ontario Creates, the provincial cultural-industry funding agency, and prepared by Olsberg SPI, a British cultural consultant. The idea was to measure TIFF’s impact on the international and Canadian film industries. The preliminary results, compiled from both TIFF’s own stats and interviews with 23 industry insiders, were released to delegates as the festival closed.
There’s lots of good news. So far, the research confirms TIFF is a central event on Hollywood’s calendar and that fuels Ontario’s growth as a centre for film production. More than 5,000 industry types attend TIFF every year and more than a third of those are American; Canadians make up a slightly smaller group at 30 per cent while the rest are from other countries. For their professional purposes, TIFF rates as a must-do, third in importance after Cannes and Berlin, and a crucial fall launching pad as preparation for the winter award season seems to move earlier every year. Toronto’s status as a public event, not a closed industry gathering such as Cannes, is important: Producers and buyers see TIFF audience reaction as a good indicator of how a film will land in North America.
This large presence is Toronto’s calling card in Los Angeles: TIFF ensures producers are comfortable with Ontario as a place to work, driving the province’s multibillion-dollar film and television production industry. Still, the Canadian industry does complain that not enough of the key creative jobs on these “service productions,” mainly from the United States, go to Canadians. Under the slogan “Hey, Hollywood,” the Directors Guild of Canada launched a cheeky billboard campaign tied to the festival and advertising the services of Canadian directors, editors and designers. Those ads speak to producers, the largest professional group attending. The second group at the festival is buyers: You can spot them at press and industry screenings; they are the last to turn off their phones and the first to slip out early if they sense a dud. They told researchers they aren’t looking for any specific genre; they come to the festival looking for quality for which TIFF, its programmers will be glad to know, has a strong reputation.
But do the buyers go looking for quality at screenings of Canadian films? The study argues it may be unfair, but there is something of a “homer” discount: International delegates suspect Canadian films, which are well represented in the lineup, are only programmed because they are Canadian. Meanwhile, because Toronto is Canada’s largest market, the study also warns that a bad reception at TIFF can ruin a Canadian movie’s chances at home.
More generally, as TIFF has emerged as a major international event, the study records complaints that small projects get lost in the shuffle. Indeed, that was part of the motivation behind launching the juried Platform program and prize in 2015, to flag some particularly worthy efforts that might be overlooked.
There are notable success stories. The study, which covers 2014-18 but not this year’s TIFF, includes several case studies of indie films, Canadian and otherwise, that have burst out of the festival. The biopic Maudie, about Nova Scotia folk artist Maud Lewis, and the Indigenous drama Falls Around Her are two Canadian examples that benefited from the warm embrace of audiences and critics at TIFF, as did the dark Australian western Sweet Country and Lion, the international drama with Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman. And, outside of September, TIFF’s year-round programming includes several initiatives designed to deliver Canadian audiences to Canadian film.
Still, the study reveals how the emergence of the event as an international heavyweight is a double-edged sword, building an industry in Canada, yet overshadowing Canadian film. In 2004, TIFF “took off the training wheels” and did away with the dedicated Perspectives Canada program that many Canadian filmmakers felt was looking more like a ghetto than a showcase. Fifteen years later, the time seems ripe for another discussion about the festival’s relationship with Canadian film.