Cinema Is Changing. Can TIFF Adapt?

The film festival has always balanced glitz and gravitas. But now it's in uncharted territory

pierre Elliott trudeau walking through a crowd
Photo by Erin Combs /Toronto Star via Getty Images

Every September, Toronto lives the dream. Red carpets are unrolled, fans stake out luxury hotels for a glimpse of a Hollywood star, and cinephiles line up around the block to watch movies from morning till midnight. In an annual ritual, the world’s film industry converges on the city for TIFF, an acronym so cemented into the media landscape it no longer needs spelling out. Full disclosure: I’ve been attending this festival forever. When I met my wife, in 1978, her close friends were running it. Soon, I worked the festival, loading a van with cans of celluloid and hauling them up to projection booths. Then I was reviewing the movies and covering the events, which I’ve done ever since. I also wrote a book about TIFF and directed three films that premiered there. So I’m hardly a neutral observer. But I do know this: at the age of forty-two, the Toronto International Film Festival is undergoing a mid-life crisis.

Cinema’s two solitudes—mainstream movies and serious films—have never been more estranged, which endangers the pedigree fare that keeps the festival alive. TIFF’s outgoing director and CEO, Piers Handling, says that the organization’s greatest challenge is the declining production of “the midbudget films which we rely on so much, especially star-driven vehicles for the galas and special presentations.” Less of that content is being made available as studios move increasingly toward tent-pole films, those blockbuster franchises that prop up entire seasons and studio budgets. Some of the biggest brands—Marvel, Pixar, and Star Wars—sit under Disney’s ever- expanding big top, and as the studio tries to acquire 21st Century Fox, it’s turning Hollywood into a monoculture. Blockbusters don’t need festival buzz. Their massive marketing campaigns do the job quite nicely.

As Hollywood abandons auteur directors, Amazon and Netflix are taking up some of the slack. Offering levels of creative freedom and cash that the studios won’t provide, Netflix has lured A-list directors, including Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Alfonso Cuarón, and the Coen brothers, to its fold. As Netflix features enrich TIFF’s lineup, it benefits the festival in the short term. But, as a streaming platform that bypasses theatrical distribution, Netflix undermines the whole raison d’être of a film festival: the magic of the big screen.

Meanwhile, TIFF itself is at a crossroads. After almost a quarter century at its helm, Handling is stepping down at the end of the year. His retirement signals the end of an era. Born in Calgary and raised around the globe as an army brat, Handling was part of the ’60s generation that got swept away by the new wave and looked to cinema as an art form that could change the world. A festival programmer since 1982, Handling was named CEO in 1994, the same year the Festival of Festivals was rebranded as the Toronto International Film Festival. And while presiding over TIFF’s phenomenal growth, he has balanced the industry’s disparate constituencies with diplomatic aplomb.

The torch will be passed to artistic director Cameron Bailey. Born in England and raised in Barbados, Bailey is a former movie critic who rose through TIFF’s programming ranks as a champion of diversity, with a keen eye for African and South Asian cinema. An unusually debonair film nerd, he’s stepping into TIFF’s top office as an agent of change. But, for the first time, that post will be shared with a business-oriented “co-head.” (In August, TIFF announced Joana Vicente, the former executive director of the Independent Filmmaker Project, will assume that role in November.) Now that TIFF is a $43-million-a-year operation—one on the hook for an almost $30 million mortgage on its home, the TIFF Bell Lightbox—requiring a single executive to both fix the finances and curate the movies is a lot to ask.

Whether wrangling movies from Netflix or Hollywood studios, TIFF has always had to deal with one devil or another to work its alchemy of showbiz glitz and art-house gravitas. But with Handling’s departure and the decision to partition his job, TIFF enters uncharted territory.

TIFF was conceived as North America’s audience-friendly answer to the black-tie formality and Olympian competition of the Cannes film festival. By now, it has upstaged Cannes as the launching pad for sending movies into Oscar orbit. North American producers have become wary of risking their fortunes on the French Riviera. With no real civilian audience at Cannes, its thousands of critics can easily turn into a bullying horde capable of killing a newborn film on Twitter moments after the credits roll. Without the pressure of a central competition, TIFF allows a broader consensus to jell, thanks to a People’s Choice Award famous for predicting movies that do well at the Oscars—a tradition that includes American Beauty, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, 12 Years a Slave, Room, La La Land, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

That, however, is a mixed blessing. September’s eleven-day festival remains a hot ticket, but between rising prices and the huge industry presence, TIFF’s image as the people’s festival has worn thin. TIFF is now so world class that people routinely complain it no longer belongs to the city, or the indie culture, that created it. But that’s really nothing new. The festival has been accused of selling out to Hollywood since at least 1984, when Jack Nicholson showed up for a gala tribute to Warren Beatty and velvet ropes began to appear at parties, segregating the stars from the riff-raff. Hollywood glamour has always been essential to TIFF: it’s what stokes the engine of media and sponsorship, which supports the art-house fare that makes up a large share of the programming.

That glamour now brings a reckoning. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, film-festival culture has undergone a seismic shift. For the past few decades, Weinstein was arguably the most important force behind indie cinema, as he brought his Midas touch to everything from period drama (Shakespeare in Love, The King’s Speech) to rude provocation (Pulp Fiction). Even after Weinstein’s vertiginous fall from grace, Handling can’t help but acknowledge that Weinstein played a significant role in raising TIFF’s profile as a stepping stone to the Oscars. “It’s not just awards,” Handling says, referring to the movies Weinstein was involved with. “It’s also about money. So many of those films went on to gross the magic barrier of $100 million.”

Weinstein is facing criminal charges, but there’s a sense that his spirit still needs to be exorcised from his old haunts. In Cannes last May, no film created a bigger stir than filmmaker Asia Argento’s excoriating speech at the awards gala, where she declared that she had been raped by Weinstein in Cannes in her early twenties. “Even tonight, sitting among you,” she said, “there are those who still have to be held accountable for their conduct against women.”

The exposure of Weinstein’s alleged horrific behaviour didn’t just ignite a war against sexual abuse and inequality in the industry, it also prompted a questioning of cinema’s male gaze at every level, from the old-boy auteurs who rule the canon to festival programmers who enshrine their work. Two months before a sexual-misconduct scandal torched Louis C. K.’s career, controversy was already simmering around the Toronto premiere of his creepy comedy I Love You, Daddy, which is like the work of a wildly disinhibited Woody Allen. As Cameron Bailey introduced the comedian to a rapturous crowd, few of us had any idea we were about to watch a movie that would soon be buried, along with C. K.’s career. Courting provocative filmmakers and bucking censorship has been a righteous tradition at TIFF, but in the current climate, it’s inevitable that any attempt to show transgressive work will be tempered by caution.

“It’s giving us pause,” says Handling. “I’ve always found the Toronto audience is very adventuresome. They don’t shy away from controversy. But we are having deeper discussions about films that are controversial.” In other words, films will be “screened” in more ways than one. And Handling’s successor recognizes the need for a new kind of cultural diplomacy. “What we all have to keep our eyes on,” Cameron Bailey told me, “is keeping step with an accelerated pace of change, and with reflecting the kaleidoscopic range of tastes and audience needs that goes way beyond the cultural consensus we lived with for so long.”

The Lightbox, a palatial theatre complex with a year-round screening program, stands as Handling’s signature achievement. But it also represents TIFF’s ultimate challenges, both financial and cultural, as it tries to build a congregation in an earbud era. And TIFF’s predicament is shared by any number of aging arts organizations, from theatre troupes to ballet companies, that are struggling to get the attention of viewers addicted to their devices. “When I look into the future,” says Handling, “I can see it going two ways. One is that the audience completely drifts away and is just not interested in the movie-going experience any more. Or the opposite happens—the specialized material begins to fall away from regular theatrical and moves towards art-house distributors or exhibitors like ourselves.”

In other words, as blockbusters flatten the ecology of the multiplex, marginalizing smaller and more sophisticated films, festival culture could reap the benefits by giving those indie films a proper home. With year-round offerings, TIFF’s ultimate destiny now seems less reliant on limitless growth and on making an ever-bigger splash every September. Size has mattered too much. The festival has too often been bloated with bad movies programmed to plant stars on the red carpet. A little liposuction is in order. Last year, TIFF showed 255 features, forty-one fewer than in 2016, and this year, Bailey says they’ll trim another ten to fifteen.

From its September vantage, the festival will continue to serve as the Oscars’ flagship, pulling Canadian and international fare in its wake. But extending the festival experience throughout the year now seems key to TIFF’s future—both to expand its revenue base and to build a loyal audience rooted in the day-to-day life of the city. That’s the mission of the Lightbox, which also runs screenings and educational programs for children, the future audience.

The notion of a Toronto edifice serving as a hub of Canadian culture may make eyes roll in the rest of Canada ; every self-respecting city has its own film festival, but Toronto’s is the one with the impact and the reach. It exports as well as imports films (TIFF’s Film Circuit distributes movies to screens in over 150 communities across Canada, often via smaller festivals). And, as an urban fixture in one of the continent’s most multicultural cities, the Lightbox mirrors world culture on the scale of a major art gallery or museum—a place that treats cinema as a precious, living art form.

Festival culture is not just about what films we see but also how we watch them. Let’s face it: a night at the multiplex has become a grisly ordeal. With the barrage of commercials, thundering trailers, and boats of snack food, going to a movie is like attending a monster-truck rally with a gang of overgrown children. Maybe not everyone wants to watch movies the way we do in Cannes, in a hushed theatre with no popcorn rustling over the soundtrack, but some films deserve the same silent focus demanded by theatre or ballet. A lingering close-up of an actor thinking, an audaciously long shot in which almost nothing happens—these things require a spell to be cast.

The Lightbox shows both current releases and classic films curated by TIFF’s Cinematheque. What’s astounding is the “dead” films often outperform the live ones. To everyone’s surprise, ticket sales to a retrospective of Russian auteur Andrei Tarkovsky, grand master of the watching-paint-dry school of slow cinema, went through the roof. Due to popular demand, TIFF had to relocate screenings to its largest cinema.

This summer at the Lightbox, I saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 classic, Blow-Up. At the concession stand, a sign warned that this was a “quiet snacks” screening, with loud food, like popcorn and nachos, banned. A packed house sat in church-like silence to behold the quintessential swinging ’60s movie, the one that inspired the “yeah, baby” parody of Austin Powers. I was seventeen when I first saw Blow-Up, my first art film and my introduction to onscreen sex, and my mind was suitably blown. Watching it fifty-two years later was a revelation.

The glam fashion-photographer hero played by David Hemmings came across as an absurd misogynist and blithe homophobe. And his infamous three-way with two giddy models seemed both naively tame and toxic with male aggression. But now, as a period piece, a vivid time capsule of London’s nascent pop culture, the film seemed immeasurably richer. And its existential mystery, of a man who captures a murder on a roll of film shot in a park, only to lose the evidence, seemed emblematic of a generation that lost its focus. It wasn’t the first time I’d rewatched Blow-Up. I’ve got it on DVD. But sitting under the thrall of the big screen, time travelling with a rapt audience, felt altogether different. A film that had been aging for half a century never seemed more present.

The recent seventy-millimetre revival of 2001: A Space Odyssey suggests that immersive cinema is enjoying a comeback. And no contemporary auteur has achieved that sensibility on a blockbuster scale with the audacity of Quebec’s Denis Villeneuve—director of Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, which has been called the most expensive art-house movie ever made. Villeneuve is disturbed by platforms like Netflix, which he seems to view as a kind of alien invasion. “I’m afraid for auteur films,” he told me in Cannes last May. “All my movies are made for the big screen. If I make a movie for Netflix, for an iPad, it won’t be the same. It’s still cinema. But I’ll have to transform the language. Time doesn’t have the same impact, or the way you read an image.” Then he adds with a shrug: “I’m old school. I deeply love the communal experience of watching a movie together and the impact of a screen that is big like a wall.”

It’s one wall that doesn’t divide people but puts them in the same room, to lose themselves in collective moments of awe, romance, laughter, grief, terror. You could call it live cinema. An experience that can’t be saved, paused, downloaded, or streamed. It’s there, and then it’s gone. A festival moment.

Brian D. Johnson
Brian D. Johnson is a long-time film critic. He has also written fiction and directed a movie, Al Purdy Was Here.