Ticketmaster, Taylor Swift and Tamil epics: where the Toronto International Film Festival goes from here

Toronto International Film Festival CEO Cameron Bailey attends The Swimmers Opening Night Gala Premiere at Roy Thomson Hall on Sept. 8.Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

If 2021 was a year of resilience for the Toronto International Film Festival – at least according to the opening line of TIFF’s most recent annual report – then what has 2022 meant for Canada’s glitziest non-profit institution? According to chief executive officer Cameron Bailey, now a year into solo running the organization following co-head Joana Vicente’s departure last fall, TIFF 2022 was marked by “recovery.”

“I’m not great at remembering milestones, but I really feel a sense of accomplishment that I worked with everyone here to deliver a festival that was successful for filmmakers, audiences and Toronto,” Bailey said last week at an interview in Inside. TIFF’s Bell Lightbox headquarters with five screens. “The city had a deeper, longer closure than many other places with a major festival, so it was important for us to re-establish our place on the map.”

Newly released songs largely confirm this sentiment. The 47th edition of TIFF attracted a total of 214,000 visitors with tickets for in-person (208,000 guests) and digital public events (6,000), the latter program being significantly smaller than that offered during the 2020 and 2021 hybrid editions.

TIFF says festival attendance in 2022 reached 89 percent of 2019 numbers “by capacity,” meaning in terms of the total number of tickets available each year. (In 2019, the festival’s last “regular” edition before the pandemic, TIFF screened 333 titles: 245 feature films, 82 short films, six series. This year, programming was reduced to 245 titles: 199 feature films, 39 short films, seven series.) However, unadjusted for capacity, the 2022 turnout represents 69 percent of the 307,362 public tickets scanned in 2019, or a decrease of about 30 percent.

“Attendance is always a concern because you want full houses, but this year’s numbers reflect fewer movies, fewer screenings, fewer seats to fill,” says Bailey. “The seats we want to be occupied are being filled at about the same capacity as in the past.”

Until then, don’t expect the festival’s programming to return to pre-pandemic levels. Bailey says that while the 2022 edition could have benefited from three or four extra screens, the organizing principle going forward is to ensure a walkable festival – with venues concentrated near the King West corridor in the city center – that offers something for every kind of audience without feeling overwhelming.

“Can it be a little smaller? Yes. Can it be a little bigger? Could be. Can it be much bigger? No,” says Bailey.

But for a film festival to function, guests need to be able to get tickets with relative ease – an experience a sizable and vocal contingent of TIFF attendees missed out on this year thanks to a frustrating Ticketmaster system, prompting Bailey to issue an apology. bring. the day before the festival started. The process is now being dissected and reworked by a team led by newly appointed chief operating officer Beth Janson.

“When you’re on the receiving end of things, it looks like a technology issue, but it’s mostly a process,” says Bailey, noting that Ticketmaster will still be part of the 2023 festival. simplifying things that are usually on our end. We’ve made decisions over the years that have added layers of complexity, like barnacles on a whale.”

Another element that needs to be reconsidered is how TIFF handles being star-studded press conferences. This year, TIFF required journalists to submit questions in advance instead of asking them live in the room, with selected questions provided by moderators without attributing them to reporters or outlets.

“Having worked as a journalist for years, I understand the work that journalists do here. I also know that the people who bring films to us now work in a climate where there are all kinds of risk factors – there are sometimes challenges to keep a conversation on topic during an open session,” says Bailey. “But we all agree that this was not the ideal way.”

In terms of programming, this year’s festival has featured global superstars like Taylor Swift and Harry Styles alongside huge world premieres including Steven Spielberg’s The Fables and Glass Onion: A Mystery of the Blades, the latter of which has been playing an engagement in the Lightbox for a week now. But there was also a plethora of mediocre streaming rates and the absence of high-profile movies with awards instead debuting at the Venice (tar, Bones and all, white noise) and New York (Until, she said) festivals.

“We all try to do the best for our own festival, and there’s always that jockeying for titles,” says Bailey. “But the real value we bring is in terms of the Toronto public, a fact that became so much more apparent to me over the course of the pandemic. For films that need to understand how to play with North American audiences, there’s something irreplaceable about coming to Toronto.”

The so-called “Telluride Rule” still applies to TIFF as well. This means that during the first half of the festival and in the biggest venues, TIFF will focus on films that, says Bailey, “come to us first. … It doesn’t mean we don’t invite your movie. It all has a Tetris.” (rich in light, The miracle and Women talk all had their world premiere on Telluride days before showing during the second half of TIFF.)

Outside of the festival, TIFF’s five-screen Lightbox has delivered a number of success stories for 2022, all of which are crucial given the relative dearth of new theatrical releases in the exhibition landscape, let alone the increasingly challenging arthouse market.

TIFF’s fall season of new releases has delivered a 158 percent increase in gross revenue compared to the same period in 2019, with box office highlights including Triangle of sadness (the Lightbox was the film’s No. 1 location in Canada and No. 8 in North America), David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the future (No. 1 venue in North America on its opening weekend) and the Tamil-language epic Ponniyin Selvan: Mewhich became the Lightbox’s third-highest-grossing new release ever (after Moonlight and pina), earned $270,921.

“We know there’s a structural barrier to independent movie theater operators in Canada, so where the well ran dry, we dug a new one,” says Bailey. “Partly this means playing movies from streaming platforms, but it also means playing movies for South Asian audiences that previously didn’t make it to the inner city.” (Just announced this week, TIFF will host the Spectacular series in December, Spectacular: The Mythic Cinema of S.S. Rajamouli, director of this year’s global Telugu language sensation RRR.)

However, any conversation about state-of-the-art house cinema is currently taking place in the shadow of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which collapsed last month along with its accompanying Filmhouse cinema, the city’s largest independent theatre.

mr. Bailey participates in the In Conversation with…Damien Chazelle at TIFF Bell Lightbox on September 12.Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

“Edinburgh is a very specific situation with its funding model, and I don’t think other festivals are similarly vulnerable,” says Bailey. “But we’re all vulnerable in terms of how people want to watch movies now, and what kind of movies. That is constantly changing and I feel we are stronger when we come out together.”

To that end, TIFF will become the largest member of the network of independent Canadian exhibitors (NICE), founded in 2018 to support the country’s struggling indie sector.

Meanwhile, TIFF is now a year into its latest three-year strategic plan, which includes familiar, long-standing goals (“Reinventing the TIFF Bell Lightbox Experience”), but this time built on the back of a broadly revamped senior leadership team. There’s COO Janson, who joined last spring from the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, as well as Anita Lee (chief programming officer), Elisabeth Burks (vice president, partnerships) and Marsha John-Greenwood (vice president, people and culture ).

“The festival will always be the most important thing we do, but there is work to be done to ensure we are ready to perform all year round,” says Bailey. “It’s partly about the movies we play – most of it actually – but also when people come into the building, what’s the experience like? You can no longer assume that going to the cinema is a habit. Watching movies is a habit, but going to the cinema is something else.”

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