Despite slowed fundraising, execs remain optimistic

TORONTO — The show must go on — or up, in the case of Bell Lightbox, future home of the Toronto Film Festival and its ambitions to expand further into year-round activities. But right now, it’s an eye-catching construction site at the vortex of the city’s downtown entertainment and media districts.

Fund-raising for the C$196 million ($180 million) project hit a plateau last summer. Then came the global economic chill. A new campaign chair, who re-energized the organization’s efforts over the past six months, recently resigned for personal reasons. Of the C$49 million ($45 million) left to raise, the $28 million capital portion (the remainder for endowment and operations) needs to be secure — per conventional wisdom — within a few months of the fest’s move-in date, likely late 2010 or early 2011.

Still, CEO and co-director Piers Handling exudes confidence, with the upcoming fest offering a “special buzzy occasion” to host donor prospects. “It’s a challenging time to talk to some donors, but others are very open, especially with news that we’re coming out of the recession,” Handling says. “We’re showing more people the building, which is totally tangible now.”

On a tour of the site, the words of Lightbox artistic director Noah Cowan turn the Lightbox’s unfinished concrete boxes into five state-of-art cinemas (the three largest on the building’s second “cinema spectacle” level, and the smallest equipped for digital post), galleries, restaurants, studios, archives and wired lounges. Standing inside the entrance, one can imagine the bustle through the easily navigable, spacious complex that Cohen calls “the only film center of its kind in North America.”

The street-level gallery is generating staff excitement in terms of its interaction with the festival, year-round programming and enriched activities around major studio releases.

“It’s an important part of putting Lightbox on the tourist map,” says Cohen, adding that Toronto wasn’t a stop for recent major touring exhibitions on Pixar, Hitchcock and Kubrick.

In addition, dozens of new and under-construction condos south, west and east of the building are expanding the youthful downtown demographic, already buoying the box office at the fest’s Cinematheque.

The festival moves its hub to the neighborhood next year, with the press office, sales and industry center and guest offices located at the nearby Hyatt Regency. “Even if the building won’t be fully utilized for festival activities, we’re encouraging press and industry to relocate next year,” says Cohen.

Guests in 2011 will see Lightbox by day as a center of press and industry action in conjunction with area cinemas, with the red carpet rolled out for public evening screenings.

As for this year? Interested parties can investigate via daytime hardhat tours or stroll past the Lightbox’s John St. facade (a few blocks from Roy Thomson Hall, which hosts the fest’s gala screenings) where three Future Projections films offer a glimpse of what’s to come.

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