Red carpets are back at TIFF, but big questions are being asked about the future of cinema

A procession of Hollywood glitz and a steady stream of hype descend on the Toronto International Film Festival this week, but a dark cloud hangs over the celebration as the battered film industry faces crucial questions about its future.

Three years have passed since TIFF last hosted an all-in-person film festival and in that time the film world has undergone a seismic shift.

Movie theaters, once a reliable part of the film industry, have descended into financial uncertainty as the streaming industry has taken some of the slack. Films that once had a six- to eight-month awards season can now debut at home a few weeks after their theatrical release.

If television is the centerpiece of the cultural conversation, some observers say it raises questions about whether TIFF — or any other film festival — holds the cultural clout it once did.

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Amil Niazi, showrunner of CBC’s Pop Chat podcast, says the excitement surrounding TIFF’s return this year comes « under that umbrella of questioning and consideration » for what it means to be one of the biggest festivals in movies in the world.

“There are growing questions about the purpose of an in-person festival…and whether that kind of pomp and circumstance, glitz and glamour, really has a place in this industry.” Niazi said.

After hosting mostly digital screenings for the past two years, TIFF organizers seem determined to prove that an in-person festival is the way to go. Over the 11 days beginning Thursday, the festival will host film premiere parties, Q&As, as well as concerts and pedestrian attraction activations by corporate sponsors along King Street West or Festival Street .

Inside theaters, TIFF is returning to its pre-pandemic size with a lineup of more than 200 feature films.

Harry Styles, Oprah Winfrey and Daniel Craig will be among the names in town for film premieres, while Taylor Swift will travel to Toronto to discuss and screen her debuting 13-minute short ‘All Too Well’ online last November.

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Several film selections will pay tribute to the community virtues of cinema. Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical ‘The Fabelmans’ and Sam Mendes’ drama ‘Empire of Light’ both build a plot around big-screen appeal, while Chandler Levack’s ‘I Like Movies’ is set in a chain of Canadian video libraries.

These nostalgic reflections are also a reminder of how quickly popular viewing habits become folklore.

After months of COVID-19 shutdowns, audiences have returned to theaters in significant numbers, but not enough to reach pre-pandemic levels.

Even record-breaking « Top Gun: Maverick » this summer hasn’t allayed concerns. Besides a handful of superhero movies and sequels, few films have achieved breakout status, and the most anticipated film festival titles – including David Cronenberg’s ‘Crimes of the Future’ and ‘Three Thousand Years of Longing » by George Miller – died on arrival at the box office.

Meanwhile, a seemingly endless source of cash from tech companies has allowed Netflix and other streaming giants to gobble up award-winning festival titles, leaving smaller independent distributors to crumble under their own financial debt.

All of this casts uncertainty over the future shape of the industry as TIFF makes a comeback.

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Claire Peace-McConnell is unconvinced that any of these outside forces will leave a dent in TIFF’s reputation. The head of Canadian content development at distributor VVS Films said the festival understands that while the films are its main event, it’s also about « all the extras ».

« To be in the room when Steven Spielberg has a world premiere is a unique opportunity, » she said, pointing to the upcoming world premiere of « The Fabelmans » on Saturday.

« I think everyone who says film festivals are dead, they need to go to this screening and they need to feel the energy in this room. Because it’s irreplaceable.

But while the promise of celebrity contact may draw large audiences to some public screenings, it’s the rest of TIFF’s selections that face a less certain fate.

Many Canadian arts events have struggled with unpredictable attendance since reopening their spaces over the past year and it’s unclear how many festival-goers will show up for small art films.

Powys Dewhurst, a director who also oversees the industry’s events strategy, said it casts uncertainty over all arts gatherings – not just TIFF.

« A lot of these various institutions are struggling to fill seats during the pandemic, » he said.

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« I think there’s no real way to tell what it’s going to look like at this point. »

Moving forward, TIFF organizers seem determined to put aside any stark reminders of the pandemic.

Gone are the drive-ins where couples canoodle in the privacy of their SUVs, while outdoor movies under the stars have been reduced to classic movies instead of premieres.

Even the virtual screenings that have won over new festival-goers are largely turning black. Only two dozen titles are available for home rental after September 13.

Cameron Bailey, the chief executive of TIFF, defended the small list of home-viewing titles, saying that in some cases that choice is made by the film’s producers and distributors.

« (They) are very careful about presenting their films online, » he said, pointing to factors such as piracy.

“For the past two years, when we didn’t have much choice, rights holders were as cooperative as possible to allow us to screen some online across Canada.

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TIFF returns with an in-person experience in September

TIFF returns with an in-person experience in September – April 1, 2022

Fewer or no virtual options is a mistake for any film festival hoping to stay relevant, suggested Candice Frederick, senior culture reporter at the Huffington Post in New York.

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« Moving forward, I think every major festival should have this capability, » she said.

“There will be a significant number of people who will only experience festivals virtually, so I think that is essential. The idea of ​​not having this platform will always be a mistake.

Frederick is confident that TIFF will maintain its appeal, even as the wider industry faces unprecedented conflict.

“There is still enough respect for the theater. People are going to attend a festival, maybe not in exactly the same way as before, and maybe not even as often, but… people still want to go,” she said.

Niazi agrees, but suggests that some of the trends may ultimately cloud the spectacle surrounding TIFF.

“If this is truly the triumphant return that it sets out to be, I think (TIFF) will actually be a much smaller, more tightly controlled version of itself,” she added.

— With files by Nicole Thompson

© 2022 The Canadian Press


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