Piers Handling, thelong-time director of the Toronto International Film Festival, is steppingaside from his main programming duties to concentrate on his other job title,that of CEO of the umbrella Toronto International Film Festival Group (TIFFG).Meanwhile, the organization is entertaining a dozen applications for the job ofco-director of the festival proper; the successful applicant will hit theground running, with a start day of January 1, 2004.

The move is seen as part ofa long-term strategy to see Toronto become the premiere cinematic culturedestination, above and beyond the ten-day event in September. Handling has saidthe festival aspires to surpass Cannes in prestige. At the core of the strategyis the 2006 opening of Festival Centre, a five-story, state-of-the-artheadquarters which provide a focal point for TIFFG's other programmes,including its Sprockets children's film festival, the Cinematheque Ontario anda burgeoning reference library.

The 54-year-old Handling,who has been with the festival since 1982 and has overseen it as festivaldirector for nine years, told ScreenDaily that, while the decision was his tomake, changes in the executive suite were inevitable given the growth of theevent. "You can't have one person doing the job, not if it's going to grow inthe way it should." Handling said the next phase is a managed transition overthe next three years.

Handling declined to commenton who might assume the festival co-director position; former programmer NoahCowan, who had a stint in distribution but is now jobless, has expressed aninterest in the position and current festival programming manager SteveGravestock is a likely candidate. TIFFG managing director Michele Maheux willremain as the organisation's number two after Handling, overseeing the vastadministration and communications apparatus as well as the capital fund for thenew headquarters.

Handling dismissed anycomparisons with changes at Cannes where Gilles Jacob passed artisticprogramming duties to Thierry Fremaux. "Cannes doesn't go all year so I don'tthink you can make comparisons. I will continue to programme films and, whenthe new headquarters open, the opportunities will be endless."

"I've done the festival fortwenty years now. I know it backwards," said Handling, who has guided thefestival through a number of crises, including 9/11 and this year's threat of aSARS epidemic. "It's wonderful but in terms of a challenge - while every yearbrings its own specific challenges - there aren't a lot surprises leftanymore."

Bad news for any aspiringfestival directors: the application deadline has passed.