‘Violin,’ biz buzz tuned for Toronto

'Siege' siezing opportunity to bow

TORONTO — The curtain ascends tonight at the 23rd Toronto Intl. Film Festival with the North American premiere of Francois Girard’s “The Red Violin.”

The ambitious multipart saga of the journey through time and across continents of a prize fiddle opened the Venice Nights section of the venerable Italian fest last week to mixed response.

Toronto, with 300-plus feature selections and the enthusiastic support of the city, its filmgoers and Hollywood majors and indies, has evolved into perhaps the most eagerly anticipated North American movie marathon.

It attracts such a large crowd of industry professionals and journalists that a virtual parallel fest was created just to handle those contingents. For 10 days, the film industry is everywhere, eating, drinking, partying and sleeping off the headiness in the closest thing to Cannes glitz on this side of the Atlantic.

Last-minute biggie

The world premiere of Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Siege” is a last-minute addition to the program, joining 144 other world and North American premieres.

The fare ranges from esoteric Cannes and European prize-winners to such Hollywood fare as “Living Out Loud” with Holly Hunter and Danny DeVito and Billy Bob Thornton and Bill Paxton in “A Simple Wish.”

And the event has had an enviable record of getting the stars and filmmakers, of both the glittery and streetwise fare, to show up, making it a desired launch pad for sales and promotion.

The event’s ongoing dilemma has been size. The press and industry screening schedule was the result of not having the capacity to handle both visitors and locals at public showings.

Because it finalizes selections very late, advance ticketing has been a problem from its first outing and, despite improvements over the years, continues, with long lines of patrons queuing up for hours with sometimes no guarantee of a seat.

This year, there are a couple of additional headaches. A strike by Air Canada pilots could have a significant impact on visitors from abroad and the failure to complete renovations on the Grand Bay Hotel — planned as the new base for the fest — necessitated creating alternative press and industry headquarters.

Air strike blues

The air strike could, at best, be resolved this weekend, and, at worst, could run the full course of the festival. The event’s airline liaison was temporarily laid off when negotiations failed and a new staffer has been assigned to interface with event organizers.

Air Canada — a major festival patron — sponsors Toronto’s audience awards and runs a contest for vacations in addition to providing complimentary tickets for international guests. Its promos prior to screenings at the recently concluded Montreal film fest were greeted with catcalls and laughter, and Toronto is gritting for a similar response.

In Montreal, where Air Canada provides the same type of support, the strike had a palpable effect on attendance. A Montreal limo driver noted that of an initial list of 40 guests to be picked up at the airport during the closing weekend, he wound up delivering just five people.

“Right now it appears we’ve solved travel problems for 80% of our guests,” said Toronto managing director Michelle Meyheux. “But there’s no way to determine who might be scared out of fear that they might be stuck once they get here. But on our end, we certainly appear to have solved most of the major problems.”

However, in most instances, guests will be unable to take a direct flight to Toronto.

Renovations delay

The Grand Bay Hotel had been a fest host back in the 1980s when in it was the Park Plaza. Fest organizers had been assured that renovations to the hotel would be completed well in advance of September. And while work on guest rooms was finished, meeting rooms and business support areas are still in process.

Hotel management had indicated to fest senior staff that their timetable had been pushed back as early as last April. A June 1 deadline was set to examine the situation and a decision was made to investigate alternative sites for guest, industry and press offices. In this instance, the fest lucked out, securing space on Bloor Street close to all its major screening venues.

Additionally, Ray-Ban has erected a hospitality center across the street from the headquarters, and the adjacent Yorkville area of downtown has become a virtual cinema village. Any sense of major logistical problems certainly weren’t being felt as the minutes ticked away to kick off. One staff member even joked that Toronto thrives in chaos but always keeps its Canadian cool.

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