Fest CEO Piers Handling steps up fund-raising

Toronto film fest CEO and co-director Piers Handling is stepping up fund-raising for Bell Lightbox, the future home of the Toronto Intl. Film Festival Group and its year-round activities.

The new facility will cost C$196 million ($163 million), including capital for endowments and operating costs.

When the campaign hit a $120 million plateau this summer, the fest turned to a Toronto consulting firm specializing in arts philanthropy for new ideas.

“We’re largely a sponsorship-driven organization, and the campaign initially moved in that direction,” explained Handling.

For the final stretch, Handling, fest staff and volunteers — including the campaign committee chaired by producer Robert Lantos, founder of Maximum Films — will focus on the $24.5 million capital portion of the remaining $43 million and target private donors.

But as snow settles on the bones of the dramatic five-story structure, designed by Kumabara Payne McKenna Blumberg architects and now rising on a prominent downtown corner on Reitman Square in Toronto’s entertainment district, the economic climate is much chillier than December 2007.

“We’re taking it seriously,” Handling said. “But there is strong evidence philanthropic gifts don’t dry up during economic downturns.”

Positive news in a soon-to-be-released economic impact study, the fest’s first in six years, will give fresh ammo to the restructured fund-raising team in its efforts to draw in money locally and beyond Toronto.

“One successful thing we did early on was to take a board committee to look at similar institutions in Europe, so we’re considering taking a group of potential and existing donors to Cannes in May,” said Handling, who will continue programming films.

Even if big bucks flow in, 2010 remains a soft target for completion of Bell Lightbox. Part of a wider development, the 378 condo suites in the 41-story tower are expected to be ready then, but the fest’s five state-of-the-art cinemas will require months of testing.

The 150,000-square-foot building will also include three galleries, three learning studios, a center for scholars and spaces for fun and conversation.

“We have such goodwill in the community; everyone wants us to succeed,” Handling said. “Now that the building is rising we can raise the level of excitement.”

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