Digital festival and market components are ”here to stay”, according to the top team at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) who addressed this year’s slimmed-down selection, festival collaborations, and financial challenges in the latest ScreenDaily Talks webinar on August 25.

Watch the full session above.

With less than two weeks to go before the 45th TIFF kicks off on September 10, TIFF co-heads Cameron Bailey and Joana Vicente and senior director, film, Diana Sanchez outlined their hybrid festival plans and fielded questions from a live audience.

“It became really apparent very early on we had to have a very strong digital component,” said TIFF executive director Vicente. 

Every one of TIFF’s reduced line-up of 50 films – the result of some tough choices despite pleas for a larger selection – will all screen at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and select drive-in and outdoor venues in Toronto accordance with Ontario’s public safety protocols.

Canadian audiences can view the films – which include Under The Open Sky, Another Round, Concrete Cowboy and acquisition titles such as Bruised and Good Joe Bell – on the geo-blocked Bell Digital Cinema platform. 

Industry programming, open to accredited badge-holders from around the world, will sit on the TIFF Digital Cinema Pro platform. Both platforms are hosted by Shift72.

All industry programming – including the In Conversation With… series – will be online only; TIFF has reduced the cost of its industry badge, which will allow access to all press and industry screenings and conference talks.

Market transactions will take place as buyers and sellers see fit, although there will be ways to do meets and greets through the TIFF Digital Cinema Pro platform.

Press and industry screenings on the digital platform will each generally be accessbile within a 48-hour window to allow them to be viewed wherever delegates are in the world. ”You need to check on specific films,” urged TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey.  “You have to map out your schedule the way you would ordinarily do so at the festival,” 

Collaboration and financial challenges

TIFF’s collaborative approach this year encompasses a collegial relationship with Venice, New York, and Telluride, exemplified by Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland which i screening at all four festivals.

Sanchez said conversations with San Sebastian are ongoing to help each shared film reach as wide an audience as possible.

TIFF is not giving any film an official premiere status in recognition of the unprecedented events of 2020. “It just didn’t feel like something that was necessary,” said Bailey. “This year, along with the festivals we’ve been talking to, our goal is really just to be here to support the films.”

This has been a devastating year financially for many institutions and TIFF has been no exception.

“We were looking at a huge deficit and we’ve had to make hard decisions in terms of trying to mitigate that and cutting expenses,” said Vicente. “We have a very understanding board and we have a plan for the next three years.”

She added all TIFF’s major sponsors have remained on board, and the digital gala and the new For The Love of Film Fund are two key fundraisers.

Bailey noted the festival typically generates sufficient revenues to fund TIFF’s year-round activities such as education, talent development and outreach programmes as well as the TIFF Cinematheque and library. But not so this year. “We need to find ways to make sure we still do what we do year-round,” said Bailey. “All of those things are at risk because we don’t have the festival revenue to support them, and so we’re hoping that when the festival is over and we get back to the rest of the year we’re able to find the support for all the other things to make sure those things don’t fall away.”

Avoiding pitfalls

Asked what pitfalls of virtual festivals they were keen to avoid, Bailey said: “You don’t want it to be boring. You want to have the intensity, the excitement, the rush the buzz of a festival, so we want to do that.”

He said the festival had approached 50 directors including Darren Aronofsky and David Cronenberg and actors such as Brie Larson under the auspices of its Ambassadors programme to engage with audiences on social media and through time-limited events, including live ones.

“We want to engage our filmmakers with one another and audiences… Filmmakers say that is very important to them,” said Sanchez.

“We’re trying to make this an appointment,” added Bailey. “You figure out a schedule of what you’re most excited to see, and you make sure you’re there when it happens.”

As for which components of the hybrid festival they believe will endure in a post-pandemic world, Vicente was emphatic. “I don’t think we’re going to go back,” she stated. “This will always be a part of what we do and it does enable access to the festival… We’re really excited about the digital component and for sure it’s here to stay.”