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The future of the Toronto International Film Festival changed on the afternoon of March 14. Just as it was preparing to host matinees of the acclaimed new drama First Cow, TIFF decided to temporarily close its five-screen Lightbox, making the multiplex the first movie theatre in Toronto to shutter due to COVID-19. Staff began working remotely immediately, hoping to untangle the knot facing every arts organization in the world: survival.
Figuring a way to produce a fall festival was especially critical, since a huge amount of TIFF’s revenue comes from the hundreds of thousands of ticket-buyers who flood its 500-plus screenings every September. With programming and attendance at the Lightbox under scrutiny outside festival time, the fate of the festival is irrevocably tied to the fate of the entire year-round institution, which itself is crucial to the development and stability of the Canadian film industry.
Four options were on the table: an in-person festival, which required boundless optimism; a hybrid edition of in-cinema and virtual screenings; an online-only version; and cancellation. Staff met twice a day for two to three weeks, all while watching other events label 2020 a wash: CinemaCon, SXSW, the Munich Film Festival, the Karlovy Vary Festival.
It was quickly determined that cancelling didn’t make financial sense. So TIFF kept doing what it was used to doing: viewing submissions from filmmakers hoping to get into the festival (6,038 titles in total this year, just 23 per cent fewer movies than 2019, which is remarkable given the pandemic-era uncertainty), and figuring out how to pull off a miracle.
“There’s a lot of strong interest from those in the industry who are depending on us to have a strong festival,” TIFF co-head and artistic director Cameron Bailey told The Globe in April. “We’re using the DNA of what works with the festival and applying it with the DNA of what’s been working with our digital experiences. We’re trying to find the right balance.”
In late June, TIFF announced what that balance would look like: physically distanced in-cinema and drive-in premieres, virtual screenings and a drastically reduced lineup of just 50 films, about 79-per-cent fewer selections than 2019′s edition (although this would grow to more than 60 titles by late summer).
“Our teams have had to rethink everything,” Bailey said at the time. “We have rebuilt our festival drawing on our five decades of commitment to strong curation, support for filmmakers, and engagement with audiences.”
That rebuild required sacrifices. The day before TIFF announced its 2020 plan, it cut 31 full-time staff positions across departments and forecast a 50-per-cent reduction in revenue. It wasn’t surprising: despite initially penciling in an April 14 reopening, TIFF’s Lightbox was still closed, and unlike other art-houses in North America, the organization had yet to adopt an online screening portal where it could earn revenue from the handful of titles being released virtually (on July 10, it launched digital TIFF Bell Lightbox).
And as Hollywood studios continued to punt their 2020 films into 2021, it became clear that the prestigious Oscars-bait that usually populates TIFF’s programming wouldn’t be available. Even Netflix, a close ally of TIFF’s, has taken the year off from the festival circuit. Instead, a large chunk of TIFF’s 2020 lineup consists of acquisition titles – movies heading to Toronto with the hope of generating sales interest from distributors.
“We know some films are taking advantage of the later deadlines and releasing next year,” Bailey and his fellow co-head Joana Vicente said in a joint e-mail to The Globe this week. “But critics and awards voters should definitely be looking at films at our festival like Ammonite, The Father, Nomadland and 76 Days, which are definitely Oscar-calibre.”
There have also been organizational hiccups. TIFF planned to use the Isabel Bader Theatre as one of its venues, only to lose it over University of Toronto campus requirements. As is typical, technical issues plagued early online ticket sales. And due to “security concerns” from filmmakers about online viewership, TIFF cut press accreditation by 68 per cent. Perhaps TIFF could have anticipated that members of the media might be vocal about their disappointment, yet the delayed communication around the issue allowed discontent to fester on social media.
On the other hand, a common complaint about TIFF is lack of access, but this year’s festival will be the most accessible ever, thanks to titles being available online across Canada. “This new digital platform has introduced us to a whole new realm of possibilities, so there are things that we will use in the future from this experience,” Vicente and Bailey said.
Yet, it is an open question as to how much revenue a reconfigured TIFF can take in. While other festivals have reported relative success in going online-only – Montreal’s Fantasia said it sold about 65 per cent of the number of tickets it would have in a normal year, while Toronto’s Hot Docs estimated it retained about 87 per cent of its paid audience – TIFF is built on the intangible sensation of an on-the-ground experience.
At least TIFF was on a small upswing pre-pandemic. According to its 2019 annual report, released last month, TIFF had $3.9-million in excess revenue over expenses, a jump from 2018, when it had just $65,989. And Vicente’s 2019 fundraising initiative, the TIFF Tribute Awards Gala, also paid off, raising $1.2-million (this year’s gala will act as a telethon of sorts, airing on CTV).
But then there’s the Lightbox. The multiplex has not yet reopened for regular screenings, despite provincial authorities giving cinemas the approval to do so. “Some time in the fall, TIFF will start ramping up slowly in accordance with public health officials,” Vicente and Bailey said. “We hope over the coming months that we will see positive developments in the global health pandemic.”
TIFF has long said that its mission statement is to transform the way people see the world through film. But now, it will be up to the world to transform TIFF.
The 45th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival runs Sept. 10-19.