A few years ago, Helen Zukerman found herself sitting in a meeting, contemplating what her organization, the Toronto Jewish Film Festival, would do to mark its upcoming 25th anniversary. The milestone is no small feat, so littered is the Toronto film scene with competing festivals, all struggling to grow and broaden their audiences in the shadow of giants such as TIFF and Hot Docs.
So Zukerman, the founder and artistic director of the TJFF, mulled a few 25th-anniversary hooks. She could throw a massive, city-shaking party. But everyone threw parties. She could cobble together an archive, perhaps along the stature of TIFF's immense Film Reference Library. But that sounded too formal, too old-school. Then Zukerman glanced at the shelves surrounding her. Thousands of DVDs lined the TJFF office, memories of festivals past, all now gathering dust.
"I thought, what a shame, people put their souls and lives and maxed out their credit cards to make these films, and once they made the festival rounds, they sit on a shelf," Zukerman says. "People always ask us, 'Do you remember showing X, Y, Z film four or five years ago? What happened to it?' Well, it's here."
Which is when Jeremie Abessira, operations manager for TJFF, had an idea. Instead of a tangible archive, why not build an interactive digital hub that allows instant access to a history of Jewish cinema? Now, Abessira and his team have launched TJFF Online, an ambitious new streaming hub that's the next logical step of a film archive, and might portend the future of film festivals themselves. Simply visit the TJFF's website, select a film of interest and start playing it on the device of your choice, for free.
"An archive sounded so sterile. And the way technology was going, we knew we had to do something interactive," Zukerman says. "The very nature of filmgoing has changed, so we should change with it."
It's an idea that's put the TJFF (which this year rebranded itself as the Toronto Jewish Film Foundation) in league with premiere film fests across the world, if not ahead of the curve. While arts organizations such as the National Film Board have invested in making their catalogues available free to stream, other players big and small employ VOD services that only operate on a pay-per-view or subscription model, including such giants as Venice and Sundance, and more comparable organizations to the TJFF such as the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival and the JCC Manhattan's Israeli Film Center.
TIFF, for its part, has toyed with a similar concept, but is not committing to it at the moment. "This is not something as a brand we are forging into at this time," said Rachel Noonan, director of marketing, communications and strategy for TIFF. "We have experimented over the years, and will continue to explore what our audiences need and how we can bring it to them online and at the TIFF Bell Lightbox."
Hot Docs, whose festival this year overlaps with the TJFF, launched a similar initiative in 2006, but abandoned it in favour of selling films via iTunes and other streaming platforms.
The current landscape, then, puts TJFF at the forefront in terms of audience accessibility – at least for now.
"We may move to a pay-per-view model later on, while keeping some titles for free, but this is about access for those who can't attend the festival," Abessira says. "Streaming is taking an important role within the film festival industry, the same way social media is now an obligation for all festivals. Not having streaming limits you to a certain target audience. Now, many people all over Canada who won't come to the festival but might be interested in it can get a taste. And those who already come, they can continue to explore the festival they know online."
The sheer amount of detective work needed to get the service up and running, though, might be one reason why other fests have failed to embrace the technology as warmly as the TJFF. The organization may have shelves bursting with copies of old films, but not the rights to exhibit them online. So Abessira's team had to wade through rights-holders and exhibitor agreements, hoping to find amenable partners.
"The biggest challenge was digging into the contracts, making sure we have the rights for a certain time, for a certain region. That took a long time," Abessira says. "Right now, our films are only available in Canada, because we want to be respectful to our distributors."
The TJFF is also not in the business of competing with a gigantic company such as Netflix, aiming for just 25 streamable titles this year (to mark its 25 anniversary, but to also limit administrative legwork). Currently, there are five films available, including the 1996 documentary A Tickle in the Heart and the 2007 drama Noodle.
"My hunch is that if we haven't been able to reach some filmmakers, if word gets around about this, some may call us and say, 'How about putting my film up there? It hasn't played in ages,' " Zukerman says.
More importantly, though, the TJFF sees the service as the first step toward a bolder, more responsive future for the organization.
"Having this platform, we can decide what we celebrate," Abessira says. "The live programming possibilities are endless. We could host Q&As, highlight the work of certain actors or filmmakers, focus on genres. This is just the beginning."
The Toronto Jewish Film Foundation runs its 2017 festival May 4-14 (tjff.com).