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Executive director and co-head of the Toronto International Film Festival Joana Vicente speaks onstage during the 2021 TIFF Tribute Awards Press Conference, at Roy Thomson Hall, in Toronto, on Sept. 11.Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

There is no good time for an arts organization to lose a leader, but the midst of a pandemic that has upended cultural behaviour certainly has to be one of the worst.

On Wednesday, the Toronto International Film Festival announced that, after just three years at the helm, Joana Vicente is stepping down as executive director and co-head. The industry veteran, who joined TIFF in the fall of 2018 after leading the New York-based Independent Filmmaker Project, is leaving TIFF to become CEO of the Sundance Institute, the pre-eminent independent film organization in the United States.

“The last 18 months have been challenging for so many reasons, not least of which was living in a different country than my family,” Vicente said in a statement. “The opportunity to lead the team at Sundance and return to New York feels like the right decision personally and professionally.”

Vicente takes over the Sundance Institute, which has about 180 employees in offices in Park City, Utah, Los Angeles and New York City, from Keri Putnam, who announced in March that she was leaving the organization after a decade. According to spokespeople from both TIFF and Sundance, the institutions are working together to support a seamless leadership transition for both organizations.” TIFF’s board of directors, led by chair Jennifer Tory, plans to review the organization’s structure alongside TIFF artistic director and co-head Cameron Bailey to “assess next steps and leadership needs to ensure TIFF’s continued success.”

“While we know Joana loved being part of TIFF, we understand the desire to return to her career in independent film and reunite with family in the U.S. after the pandemic has separated families across borders for so long,” Tory said in a statement. “Despite the ongoing impacts of COVID-19, we reflect on a successful 2021 having hosted the largest international public film festival to take place this year; welcoming 165,000 audience members, press and industry from Toronto, across Canada and around the world at over 670 screenings.”

Added Bailey: “Working so closely with Joana has been a pleasure. Her global perspective and strategic approach have been invaluable to our work on the festival and our year-round activities.”

Vicente, whose departure is effective Oct. 31, leaves TIFF with a legacy of intensified fundraising and brand-awareness initiatives. When Vicente was hired in 2018, after the board introduced a new two-headed leadership structure in the wake of CEO Piers Handling’s retirement, Tory praised Vicente’s “combined history as a producer, a champion of independent filmmakers and [her] success in fundraising and partnerships.”

One of Vicente’s biggest initiatives since joining was launching the TIFF Tribute Awards, a fundraiser that netted $1.2-million during its 2019 inaugural gala dinner at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York hotel. This year and the last, the pandemic-era awards shifted to a broadcast format, airing on CTV and streaming via industry partner Variety. In 2020, TIFF said that, from a fundraising perspective, the broadcast was “integrated into a supporter retention, recognition and solicitation strategy … that we are valuing at just over $1-million.”

Yet Vicente’s departure also puts TIFF, arguably Canada’s highest-profile arts organization, in a deeply unenviable position. Although this year’s festival, which wrapped Sept. 18, featured roughly twice the number of films than the 2020 edition, it was still hobbled by government-mandated theatre capacity restrictions, travel unease at the border for international guests and audiences wary of in-person screenings. The not-for-profit organization has also kept its five-screen Lightbox cinema closed since March, 2020, with the complex finally set to open for year-round programming Oct. 1.

Although Vicente notes in her statement that, “as an international platform for world cinema making an impact locally and globally, TIFF has never been stronger,” the organization faces remarkable challenges that reflect the unsettled film industry landscape at large.

In addition to sparking theatre-capacity restrictions, which have no clear end in sight in Ontario, the pandemic has accelerated a shift in consumer habits toward digital viewership, and shortened or cut altogether the amount of time it takes for a film to go from being a theatrical exclusive to a home-entertainment release. While TIFF launched a digital film-rental platform last summer, it remains to be seen how much that project can compensate for a diminished in-person presence.

“As what we do and the way we do it continues to evolve amid an ever-changing global landscape, one thing remains unchanged: TIFF is an internationally respected, locally connected organization committed to transforming the way people see the world through film,” Bailey, who has held the role of artistic director since 2012, said in the statement. “I look forward to working alongside the TIFF board of directors as we continue to shape our future.”

But if TIFF hopes to continue its future transforming audiences, it will first have to transform itself, yet again. All while dealing with the most tumultuous era in the history of the film industry.

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