Toronto Film Fest on the move

Don’t look now, but the Toronto Film Festival is moving. Ever so gradually.

After decades in the semi-chic, semi-boho Yorkville neighborhood, where the rambling U. of Toronto campus rubs shoulders with tony boutiques, the festival is carefully but steadily shifting south toward the city’s revivified downtown corridor.

While Yorkville is built out in terms of available screens and hotel rooms, downtown is seeing a massive renaissance in terms of new hotel and condo developments, plus a rash of restaurants, theaters and other entertainment venues.

Prompting the migration, above all, is the five-screen Festival Center, set to open in 2009 as the fest’s hub at the downtown corner of King Street and John Street. The complex “represents a radical change for the festival,” says the fest’s sales office topper, Giulia Filippelli. “The city is redesigning itself, and this reflects part of that redesign.”

Globetrotters on the festival circuit may sense in all of this an echo of the once-derided Berlin fest’s locale change from the city’s west quadrant east to Potsdamer Platz. “I foresee this to be similar to Berlin’s, only with perhaps less complaining,” adds Filippelli.

Observant Toronto visitors can already detect the rumblings of the move. As fest co-director Noah Cowan notes: “We already have venues toward and in downtown, along with our regular gala venue, the Roy Thomson Hall. The Elgin, the Ryerson and the screens in the Paramount Theater multiplex are all far closer to where the center will be than Yorkville, so festival audiences are already getting accustomed somewhat to leaving Yorkville to see films.”

Add to this the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall, regular home to the fest’s “Wavelengths” section (though temporarily moved this year to the Al Green Theater uptown), and the downtown trend is starkly evident.

At the same time, fest CEO Piers Handling acknowledges that there’s a distinct risk in spreading what used to be a deliberately clustered number of screens.

“The festivals I love the most tend to concentrate around a center, so you can walk between venues,” he says. “Now we’re much more spread than we used to be, and we’ll have to resolve that. Being in basically two different areas does create problems.”

Having examined the crisis in U.S. cities, which had their once-vital downtown cores dissipate with suburban flight, Toronto city planners are determined to stem any possible tide out of downtown and have devised considerable condo and entertainment venue (read: nighttime) construction as a magnet for keeping dwellers in the city proper.

The results are already clearly visible on the downtown skyline, where condo towers, hotels, restaurants and megaplexes, such as AMC’s at the corner of Dundas and Yonge, sprout in every direction.

Though it may be counterintuitive, Handling observes land had become more available downtown — with the large lot for the center as a dramatic example. “It could have been located near Yorkville,” he says, “but the land was there downtown, and it basically forced the issue for us. There was then no question that we would be moving south.”

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