TORONTO — The 2019 Toronto International Film Festival will have the usual slew of Oscar bait — from Joaquin Phoenix’s “Joker” portrayal, to Steven Soderbergh’s Panama Papers scandal drama “The Laundromat,” and Tom Hanks’s turn as Fred Rogers in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
But the 44th instalment kicking off Thursday also has some changes in the form of new leadership, a splashy fundraiser gala with megastars, and a slate organizers tout as stronger, more diverse and eclectic.
Since taking over from longtime director and CEO Piers Handling last year, Cameron Bailey says he and fellow co-head Joana Vicente have aimed to build on the festival’s solid foundation and “take it to the next level.”
They also wanted to ensure “the festival felt like it had some fresh voices behind it,” Bailey said in a recent interview.
Bailey pointed to the appointment of Diana Sanchez as senior director of film, along with a few others on a diverse programming team that is 50 per cent women.
The result is a film lineup representing 84 countries and regions, with 36 per cent of the titles directed, co-directed or created by women. In the Canadian slate, almost half of the films are directed by women.
“I think you’re going to feel it when you watch films from each section,” said Bailey, who is also TIFF’s artistic director.
“The people who are really diving in deep into the festival and are watching many films … I think they’re going to feel the personality of the programmers, the individual stamp of those sections.
“We’re trying to give each section a stronger identity, and that’s a big part of it as well. We now have just more new voices around the table. I think that’s helping the overall selection and making sure that we always stay current with what’s going on right now in film.”
The presence of “Joker” in the lineup indicates the festival is also embracing superhero films, but organizers note it’s not a matter of genre but rather just good filmmaking.
“It’s much more than a superhero movie. It’s quite a deep psychological study of the Joker, and Joaquin Phoenix is incredible,” Sanchez said.
“I think superhero movies have gone well beyond where they started,” added Bailey. “They’re not simply popcorn entertainment anymore. They actually address ideas.
“We’ve seen films like ‘Black Panther’ and ‘Captain Marvel’ really be trendsetters in terms of just larger cultural conversations, and I think ‘Joker’ will be another one. It has a lot to say about mental health, it has a lot to say about family, and all of those elements are bigger than just the supervillain character of the Joker.”
Also new is the TIFF Tribute Gala, which will honour talent including Streep, Phoenix and director Taika Waititi at its inaugural instalment on Sept. 9. The event will also serve as an annual fundraiser to support the year-round programs at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
“Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band” by Daniel Roher will make history as the first Canadian-made documentary to open the festival.
“It’s a Canadian production about a Canadian hero and we just couldn’t be more proud, because he’s also going to bring some of his friends who he’s collaborated with over the years to be a part of that premiere,” Bailey said.
Perhaps those friends will include some of the other music legends in the lineup, like Mick Jagger, who appears in the film “The Burnt Orange Heresy,” or Bruce Springsteen, who co-directed the performance documentary “Western Stars.”
“Once Were Brothers,” a Crave original, marks the second year in a row that the festival is kicking off with a film intended for a streaming service. Last year TIFF opened with the Netflix historical drama “Outlaw King.”
The overall lineup has several other streaming titles, including Netflix’s relationship drama “Marriage Story” starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, and “Dolemite Is My Name” with Eddie Murphy as comedian Rudy Ray Moore.
TIFF is embracing streamers in a way some other festivals aren’t simply because it’s “looking for the best films,” said Vicente, who is also TIFF’s executive director.
“For some of the films, this is the only theatrical experience they’re going to have,” Vincente said.
“So that’s the role of the festival, I think that’s the role of the festivals in the future — is to provide this incredible platform, give it a theatrical experience and really launch and give it the proper spotlight and attention from press that they deserve.”
Overall, TIFF is trying to show that the festival “is accessible as it possibly can be to everyone, and that everyone has a place here,” Bailey said.
On that topic, Bailey and Vicente said they’re trying to do the best they can to balance the demand for tickets while keeping costs fair and affordable. Audiences under the age of 25 can get $11 tickets for daytime screenings on weekdays, while the festival has some free offerings through Cinematheque programming, Festival Street and the People Choice Award screenings, they noted.
“We’re kind of on par with all of the festivals internationally so we really try our best,” said Vicente. “But it is a big festival, it takes a lot to put it together and we try to make it fair and accessible.”
— With files from Cassandra Szklarski
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press