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The TIFF Bell Lightbox, seen on Aug. 31, 2020. The Lightbox has been closed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Typically by this point in the Toronto International Film Festival, the entire movie industry is exhausted. Although the (usually) 11-day event is a marathon and not a sprint, it is those first two days – plus the preparatory month of August, and the first week of September – where so much of the action happens. Screenings, meetings, lunches, cocktails, parties, pre-parties, pre-pre-parties: TIFF is a festival that’s fuelled by a round-the-clock on-the-ground experience.

So much for that, then. For everyone involved in the TIFF ecosystem – the media, the industry, the artists and of course the audience – a pandemic-era festival requires an existential adjustment. And two days and change into TIFF 2020, things feel ... weird.

On the media side of things, I’m grateful to have seen a handful of titles in a real-deal Toronto cinema, pre-festival. Last week, as I was watching a movie whose embargo conditions stipulate that I keep even its title a tantalizing mystery, I felt truly transported. Not necessarily by [redacted], but simply the physical reality of sitting in a huge darkened theatre, the screen overwhelming everything else. I am lucky and privileged, and my heart (or whatever pumps a critic’s cynical blood) aches knowing that a fraction of TIFF devotees will be able to do the same this physically distanced year.

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Otherwise, TIFF has been a gauntlet of digital screenings. By this point in the COVID-19 era, watching a movie at home is second nature. And TIFF’s new press and industry portal, Digital Cinema Pro, is easy and spiffy, which is surprising given the organization’s annual online-ticketing challenges. But it is still intensely strange to give yourself over to a festival film, with all manner of unknown provenance and potential, when you’re not trapped with it somewhere dark and enveloping.

It is a sensation that filmmakers themselves will have to grapple with, too. And for who knows how long.

“I’m someone who can have difficulty focusing, and I need that immersion and engagement,” Deragh Campbell, a TIFF regular who stars in this year’s short film selection Point and Line to Plane, told me last week. “The way that you drop into some state where it’s normal to see four films a day, and then see a group of friends who have come from afar to discuss those films, it really is a particular way of experiencing film. Your endurance becomes extended, and feels good to my brain. I can’t access that focus or rigour on my own in my house.”

Meanwhile, on the industry side, it is challenging to gauge the intensity of the action. There are many movies to buy and sell – likely more than ever, thanks to TIFF’s addition last week of 30 sales-only titles to the industry lineup – but also the most uncertain market in modern film history.

TIFF has been a gauntlet of digital screenings prepared for this year's festival.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

“The press and industry seemed somewhat surprised at the amount of sales activity during [Cannes' Marche du Film this past June], and we hope that momentum continues into the fall festival season,” TIFF co-heads Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey said in a joint statement. “With production timelines being altered, theatres starting to open, and streamers continuing to bolster their slates, we hope that buyers continue to look to curators to help them shop, especially when there is a lot of director-driven and audience-pleasing content looking for a home.”

But without anyone being on the ground, there is an experiential gap. You can’t wander down King Street and see which movie posters are pushing which titles, nor can you overhear who is discussing which deal in which hotel lobby, or corner certain executives at certain parties to ask for crumbs of intel. So much of the multi-billion-dollar global film business stems from such quick, serendipitous interactions that a virtual TIFF feels like climbing the Scotiabank Theatre’s stairs backwards, while blindfolded. You might be better off just waiting for someone to fix the dang escalator.

For audiences, too, this will be a new, potentially game-changing festival. Ostensibly, TIFF 2020 is the most accessible ever, with titles being available online to anyone in Canada. But there are still limits on how many tickets can be sold to a virtual screening, as producers want to maintain the air of festival exclusivity. And as any regular TIFFgoer is well-aware, opportunities to see the most hotly anticipated titles, such as the Kate Winslet/Saoirse Ronan romance Ammonite, are already long gone.

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We’ll also have to wait and see until the festival is over to properly gauge how much attendees enjoyed seeing digital security watermarks on some of their online screeners, or how the newly tightened mask-on/no concessions policy for Lightbox screenings was executed. The festival’s commitment to in-theatre safety is crucial, but it also cannot be all that enjoyable to realize that you picked the wrong two-hour-plus drama to watch and have no access to sustenance.

And the parties, so seemingly frivolous but in actuality crucial hot spots for relationship-building? There will be none of those, either, except for a few hybrid events that have a distinct air of surreality. The annual Artists for Peace and Justice gala, for instance, will host 50 guests for a physically distanced fundraising dinner in NKPR founder Natasha Koifman’s backyard, while they watch a virtual performance from Sting. “It’s different, but you want to make sure you’re both keeping everyone safe while also giving back to the community,” Koifman says of the event, which raises money for the people of Haiti.

I can guarantee, though, that when the world emerges from this – whenever that might be – TIFF will host the biggest bash that the film industry has ever seen. Until then: Embrace the weirdness.

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

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