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Kate Winslet attends the Longines Masters of New York, at Nassau Coliseum, in Uniondale, on April 27, 2018.KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images

Shorter than a dinner at A&W but jammed with enough celebrities to momentarily trick you into believing that you were in the highest floor of the private-members Soho House, the second annual TIFF Tribute Awards was forced to serve two audiences this pandemic year: the film elite who cloister around Toronto every September hoping to be feted, and the movie-going public who clamour to catch a glimpse of such star power.

Mostly, the 37-minute ceremony – broadcast Tuesday night on CTV, streamed on Crave and Facebook’d to the world via Variety – worked. Performers such as Kate Winslet and Anthony Hopkins were virtually trotted out in pretaped segments, slickly edited clips highlighted both the glamour and cultural importance of TIFF, and pleas (classy pleas, but pleas nonetheless) were aired, encouraging audiences to offer their support in the form of cold, hard donations. The production was professional and novel enough to be half-entertaining (I’ve always wanted to see what Colin Farrell wears to the gym!), and brisk and inoffensive enough to be pleasantly forgettable (what song did Shawn Mendes perform again?).

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Introduced last year as the brainchild of new TIFF executive director and co-head Joana Vicente, the TIFF Tribute Awards gala – whose self-satisfied name unintentionally echoes The Simpsons' Montgomery Burns Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Excellence – was intended as a cash-cow fundraiser whose appeal lay exclusively in how inaccessible it was.

Held at The Fairmont Royal York Hotel over an entire evening, the inaugural 2019 event appealed to those who had the desire and bank accounts, but not necessarily the digital Rolodex, to pal around with Hollywood elite. Want to see Joaquin Phoenix attempt to deliver a concise acceptance speech for winning the TIFF Tribute Actor Award? Or see Meryl Streep zip in and out to accept her honour, without participating in either the cocktail or dinner portions of the evening? Simply buy a plate, or entire table, and the magical experience can be yours.

Enough patrons signed up that the event raised $1.2-million, no small amount when it comes to Canadian galas. And fundraising is no small part of TIFF’s efforts. According to its latest annual report, philanthropic donations totalled $5.05-million in 2019, or about 11 per cent of the organization’s total earned revenue.

But in a year when marquee names cannot cross the border, and gathering for hours in a hotel ballroom is not on anyone’s wish-list, TIFF had to improvise. It could have put the awards on pause. Or it could leverage its partnerships with Bell, Crave and other corporate sponsors to put on a show.

And that show turned out to be … fine. It was neither the disaster some in the press corp were privately anticipating, nor anything near the calibre of, say, the Academy Awards, or even the Junos. Considering the circumstances that TIFF was faced with, the fact that the event was produced at all is a testament to the organization’s commitment to keeping its brand alive and humming.

Were there hiccups? Sure. I’m still surprised at how many people who work in the film industry have yet to master the art of an iPhone video (here’s looking at you, supposed master of cinema Alfonso Cuaron). Some of the speeches were more thoughtfully prepared than others (despite Colin Farrell visibly flipping through his pages on-camera, I’m convinced he typed up his introduction to Chloe Zhao just moments before). And the awards statuette itself looks like a gold bar that had an unfortunate run-in with a hole-puncher.

But there were also small delights, like Martin Scorsese kicking things off by once again subtweeting the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“this is an art form that always has been and always will be much more than a diversion”), Rosamund Pike engaging in self-directed performance art that pivoted on her saying the word “TIFF” over and over, and Canadian filmmaker Tracey Deer’s heartfelt acceptance speech for winning the TIFF Emerging Talent Award (although unlike the evening’s other recipients, she neglected to mention the award’s sponsors, L’Oreal and MGM; but that’s her agent’s problem, not ours).

As to how much TIFF hopes to fundraise through this pseudo-telethon, I couldn’t hazard a guess. Thirty minutes into the broadcast, an ad soliciting donations popped up that’s familiar to anyone who’s attended a TIFF screening, either during the festival or year-round. Maybe $1.2-million worth of viewers will heed the call. Maybe they turned the show off after Mendes performed. We’ll find out next year, when TIFF is either back to in-person private gala business – or is compelled to broadcast their need to the masses once more.

The 45th edition of TIFF runs through Sept. 19 (tiff.net)

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