A Film Festival in a Pandemic? Toronto Says the Show Must Go On

How do you put on a celebration of cinema in the middle of a global health crisis?

For the Toronto International Film Festival, the September event that helps launch the Oscar awards season, the answer fell somewhere between the push by Venice’s film festival to keep live screenings and the outright cancellation of Telluride’s annual event. Toronto’s hybrid solution puts limits on in-person screenings and employs drive-ins and an outdoor theater.

It’s a major change to an event that routinely sends ripples through the film industry. In normal times, TIFF is a grand showcase of big-budget Hollywood fare, art-house films, experimental work, documentaries, shorts and TV series. Studios use it to publicize soon-to-be-released movies, journalists and executives get a peek at what’s ahead and distributors get to witness how a representative North American audience reacts to a film. If Toronto loves it, chances are big box-office returns or award gold will follow.

This 45th edition, though, is a grim reminder of the current state of a shaken industry, with its paucity of blockbusters, shift to virtual viewing and general diminution. TIFF, which runs through Sept. 19, is showing about 60 features this year compared with 245 last year.

A Film Festival in a Pandemic? Toronto Says the Show Must Go On

Organizers had to make tough decisions about how -- and even if -- to proceed this year amid persistent uncertainties, including travel restrictions and changing public health protocols. Producers were skittish about committing to open at a festival with their final release plans uncertain.

“We’ve been working since March on plans for a festival that we knew had to be very different,” Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director and co-head, said in a phone interview. “We’ve all re-examined what film is, what the industry is, what film culture is all about.”

As crunch-time loomed, organizers chose something between Venice’s response of keeping many of its proceedings in live events and Telluride decision to cancel its whole affair, only announcing the titles it would have featured -- much like Cannes did earlier this year.

Toronto has limited in-person screenings to socially distanced affairs at its main venue, TIFF Bell Lightbox, and three drive-ins, while also showing films at an outdoor theater where ticket holders are assigned to chairs in two-person “pods.”

To conquer the dim star-wattage problem, TIFF conscripted “ambassadors” like Nicole Kidman and Martin Scorsese to support the festival, mainly from afar. It will also hold press conferences online and launch a “Tribute Awards” show to air Tuesday.

A Film Festival in a Pandemic? Toronto Says the Show Must Go On

The types of films also changed. There’s a greater emphasis on showcasing work by women -- which make up almost half of this year’s slate -- and movies with social-justice themes, Bailey said.

While the festival lacks size this year, it doesn’t lack scope. The film chosen for opening night was “David Byrne’s American Utopia,” Spike Lee’s version of the ex-Talking Heads frontman’s Broadway show. Other anticipated movies include “Concrete Cowboy,” starring Idris Elba, and “Ammonite,” a Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan love story set in 19th-century Dorset.

In documentaries, 76 Days assembles original footage of the chaos and compassion at hospitals in Wuhan, China during the coronavirus outbreak. TIFF, as usual, is also showing films that premiered elsewhere: Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” starring Frances McDormand, opened at Venice, where it was awarded the Golden Lion for best film.

Even with its widely anticipated releases, TIFF finances are likely to take a hit this year. Bailey said box-office revenue should decline proportionally with the drop in number of films this year. The year-round TIFF organization already forecast a 50% reduction in revenue compared with 2019. That should have a knock-on effect on Toronto’s film industry. The festival has been generating more than C$200 million ($152 million) in annual economic activity for Canada’s most populous city and the province of Ontario, the non-profit group has said.

Will the truncated version succeed?

Thursday’s opening night on an eerily quiet King Street West, TIFF’s epicenter, provided a curtain-raiser for how this year’s confab changed. No glitterati-seeking cinephiles were clogging every vantage point in front of The Princess of Wales Theatre. None of filmdom’s royalty preened and pranced along the red carpet leading to Roy Thomson Hall. There were no congenial half-mile queues, celebrity-packed parties or heaving restaurants. And zero pizazz.

“It’s extremely depressing,” said Justina Krupa, who worked the near-empty lobby of TIFF Bell Lightbox, normally a miasma of movement. “I’m happy that they found a solution to a more discreet festival,” said the 24-year-old film-school graduate, who has attended the festival for a decade, “but it’s a bit unfortunate.”

There’s bound to be an emotional impact for TIFF’s loyal fans such as Colleen Weddell, 51, a stay-at-home mom whose birthday coincides with the festival. For years, she celebrated by going to TIFF screenings with friends and crowding behind barricades to catch a glimpse of celebrities.

“When you love movies, you love movies,” Weddell said, adding that this time she’s forced to stick to the online offerings. “For my own little world, it’s going to be a little harder this year.”

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