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Physically distanced guests watch a screening of Inconvenient Indian at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Sept. 17, 2020, in Toronto.George Pimentel/Getty Images

The numbers are in for the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. And while the figures paint a picture of a drastically downsized festival, they also offer hope to TIFF co-heads Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey that their pandemic-era plan succeeded.

According to TIFF, 48,280 public tickets were scanned for this September’s festival, a figure “nominally exceeding” the organization’s projections for this year’s hybrid edition, which featured digital, drive-in and physically distanced in-cinema screenings. Although that attendance figure – which does not include tickets that were sold but unredeemed, or press and industry viewership – represents a sharp drop of roughly 84 per cent from the 307,362 public tickets scanned in 2019, this year’s event does not offer itself to straightforward comparisons.

Due to COVID-19, this year’s program featured only 97 titles (50 full-length features, 10 special events, one “reunion” feature and 36 short films), or 71 per cent fewer titles than 2019 (251 full-length features and 82 shorts). Combine that programming reduction with the fact that a public ticket for a digital or drive-in screening could be viewed by several members of the same household, and this year’s attendance seems relatively stable, given the circumstances.

Meanwhile, TIFF’s free digital events helped drive audience engagement in a year when the organization’s “Festival Street” initiative on Toronto’s King Street West and other in-person brand activations were not possible. According to TIFF, the festival’s 41 free talks and events for 2020 reached more than five million people worldwide through the festival’s social media channels.

While the viewership numbers for this year’s TIFF Tribute Awards are not yet available from broadcaster CTV and streaming partner Variety, the organization reports that, from a fundraising perspective, the production was “integrated into a supporter retention, recognition and solicitation strategy ... that we are valuing at just over $1-million.” Last year, the inaugural edition of the awards, the brainchild of Vicente in her first year as executive director, raised $1.2-million during its gala dinner at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York hotel.

With the 2020 festival dust now settled, TIFF is working on a public survey for attendees as organizers prepare for next year. But Vicente and Bailey are also facing an ever-changing year-round landscape.

On the virtual side of things, the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox, a film-rental platform that was launched in July but put on pause during the festival, is scheduled to return mid-November. As for the Lightbox building itself, a five-screen multiplex in the heart of downtown Toronto, TIFF says that “with the second wave of cases on the rise in the GTA, we have not determined a set date when we will be open for screenings, but are monitoring the situation.”

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