TORONTO — As the co-heads of the Toronto International Film Festival tell it, planning this year’s event while consulting with their counterparts around the world during a pandemic was like group therapy.
Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente have connected with other major international festivals facing similar crises since early on in the COVID-19 shutdown, collaborating with organizations that are usually competitors to keep the important fall circuit alive.
“We created I think a special bond,” Vicente, who is also TIFF’s executive director, said in a recent phone interview.
“We’ll see what happens next year, but when you go through hard times together, I think something sticks.”
The result is a reimagined online/in-person TIFF that has a much smaller slate and some of the same titles as other festivals, including the buzzy “Nomadland” and “Ammonite.”
But it’s an event many in the industry are happy is happening at all.
“Honestly, it has not been easy. I’m not going to lie,” said Bailey, who is also TIFF’s artistic director. “But it’s a year we will always remember, because we were forced to learn new things, to do new things, to take on challenges that we might have deferred way into the future. And the result of that has been we’ve really just made these incredible leaps forward, as an organization and as a festival, that might have taken us years and years to do.”
Running Thursday through Sept. 19, the landmark 45th festival will show about 60 features as well as shorts mostly online, with some physical screenings adhering to COVID-19 guidelines. There will also be virtual talks, cast reunions and press conferences.
Spike Lee’s filmed version of David Byrne’s Broadway concert “American Utopia” is the opening night feature. Mira Nair’s coming-of-age BBC series “A Suitable Boy” will close the festival.
Bailey said despite screen industry shutdowns due to the pandemic the festival had thousands of submissions this year, but kept the lineup trimmed so it was manageable.
They wanted to reflect current social issues, like those raised in the protests against racism, and “turn up the volume” on TIFF’s initiatives to support women, local and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) filmmakers.
The films, special events and programs including the Planet Africa 25th anniversary celebration “are a way of engaging our audience with what everybody’s talking about right now,” Bailey said, “which is: how can we make sure that there is more equity — that the movies we watch and enjoy are more inclusive of the lives that we all lead.”
TIFF’s new Bell Digital Cinema platform is geoblocked to Canada for the public, expanding the festival’s audience beyond Toronto, with a limit on the number of tickets sold per film. TIFF worked with New Zealand-based Shift72 on the digital platform, which it says has “strict anti-piracy measures.”
Screenings at TIFF Bell Lightbox, two drive-ins and an open-air cinema will be socially distanced with limited audiences. Lightbox audiences must wear masks at all times.
Some local film talent, as well as Vicente and Bailey, plan to appear at Lightbox screenings.
The online industry platform is open to delegates and press from around the world.
For many critics who weren’t able to attend the in-person Venice Film Festival running now through Sept. 12, TIFF is the first opportunity during the pandemic to see Oscar-worthy films remotely.
“I think they’ve been super smart and have risen to the occasion,” said Anne Thompson, editor-at-large at film industry and review publication IndieWire.
“I can’t envy them at all — all of the different exigencies that they had to plan for. I’m really impressed with how they figured it out.”
Much of the festival has been planned down to the wire with fewer resources and fanfare.
Changing government health and safety protocols ruled out three in-person venues TIFF was hoping to use, and many filmmakers have been scrambling to finish their projects.
In June, TIFF also had to lay off 31 employees and make salary cuts at the executive, senior management and management levels. The not-for-profit organization said it expects pandemic-related issues will slash revenues to half of what they were in 2019.
The pandemic also scrubbed the usual glitz and street-level fanfare that has cemented TIFF’s reputation as a “people’s festival” since its inception in 1976. There are no red carpets nor parties or Festival Street.
“I think it’s a money-losing operation and I commend everyone for pushing through, because it’s absolutely essential for the ecosystem,” said Thompson.
In TIFF’s mind, “it was not even a question of not having it,” said Vicente.
“Just the cost of the organization not doing anything was really prohibitive in terms of us not being able to deliver on the commitments with corporate partners,” said Vicente.
They also wanted to support filmmakers and fill a void left by previously cancelled festivals like Cannes, she added.
“Festivals are key in spotlighting these films that don’t have millions and millions of dollars of marketing and really rely on the publicity and the lift that they get from festivals.”
TIFF holds a unique space in the festival world.
With its easily accessible films and talent, and its People’s Choice Award that’s considered a bellwether for what will get a best-picture Oscar nomination or win, TIFF is seen as essential to the industry.
TIFF is also a big tourist lure and money maker for Toronto, generating more than $200 million in annual economic activity for the city and the province, according to the organization.
“This particular festival is, in some ways, so much a part of what defines the city,” said acclaimed Canadian director Atom Egoyan, who is the governor of this year’s TIFF Filmmaker Lab.
“So for so many people, we’re just thankful that there is some physical form of it that we can still celebrate while being safe.”
Bailey said government has been supportive of this year’s festival since the beginning, and TIFF has been working closely with politicians and public health officials on COVID-19 protocols.
The festival’s major partners also stayed onboard and will be highlighted in a virtual edition of the TIFF Tribute Awards fundraiser, which will air on CTV and a Variety global livestream on Sept. 15. Honorees include Kate Winslet and Anthony Hopkins. Shawn Mendes will perform.
TIFF will also hand out its annual film awards on Sept. 20.
Even before the pandemic, Bailey and Vicente had been thinking about a lot of the issues that are now brought into focus, like the future of film festivals and engaging with audiences beyond Toronto, they said.
“So we have to accelerate all of those conversations,” said Vicente, “and we can’t wait to get through and then have a moment to let it all crystallize and understand what’s worth keeping and what still needs to be innovated or improved, and what are things that maybe really didn’t work.
“It’s not going to be perfect, but when you have to innovate and innovate quickly, that’s the price of it. But we are super excited.”