Locarno: Cameron Bailey on Audience Trends, Fest Competition, Value of Reboots

Cameron Bailey in Locarno
Photo by Ingrid Oliveira

‘Theatrical largely did die,’ says the artistic director of the Toronto Festival

“Theatrical largely did die,” stated Toronto Fest artistic director Cameron Bailey, kicking off the Locarno 2016 edition of Step-In. Whether that is a problem or we’re just being nostalgic was one of the questions addressed by Step-In, Locarno’s industry think tank for distribution, exhibition, and sales professionals of auteur cinema, which launched on Friday Aug. 5 with a panel featuring TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey, Telefilm Canada’s Carolle Brabant, Mongrel Media CEO Hussain Amarshi, and Emerging Pictures’ Ira Deutchman. Bailey discussed what trends in audience habits signify from a festival perspective, how TIFF is catering to the niche “villages” of interest now emerging, and to the increasing multiplicity of choice facing audiences. Following the session, Variety grabbed Bailey at Locarno.

In what ways is TIFF embracing the current changes taking place in the world and in the film industry?

Any significant festival that lasts has to change all the time. Recently, our changes have had to do with the rise of high-quality television and new technology. We now do VR and, over the last few years, have begun working with streaming services. The way films are made and where they are made also changes: This year’s Spotlight is on Lagos, Nigeria, which has had an enormous growth over the last twenty years. Change is a part of what we do, it’s just the nature of running a festival.

TIFF this year will exhibit 280 films. How do you ensure films reach their intended audiences, or “villages” of interest? 

We have a version of a recommendation engine that you find in many online services. We recently announced the new Denis Villeneuve film, “Arrival,” so once a person buys a ticket to that, the system may recommend a film that it thinks is similar. Visitors can also search for films from certain regions, or films about certain issues — social change, or LGBT issues, as an example — and it gives you a list of films on that topic.

During Friday’s Step-In panel you stated, “Theatrical largely did die,” and suggested many people go to the movies not necessarily because they want to see that film but because they don’t want to be left out of the conversation. Is the “eventization” of festivals a trend that cannot be stopped?

It’s part of a natural process. It’s so important not to assume that what we experienced in our youth was always the law of the world. Between the 1950s to 1980s. movie-going was a regular habit. That’s done. People now go to the cinema if they feel there’s a film that dominates popular culture or if something speaks to them particularly. Today, though, we can see movies on our phone or at home with high quality. The desire to engage in visual stories has not changed, but it doesn’t mean we’re all going to the movies every Friday.

And yet festivals are increasingly engaging new audiences. Come festival time, they’re saying, “Yeah, I really want to see that new eight-hour Lav Diaz film.”

It has to do with the context of the event of a festival, the sense of discovery people have. It’s a privileged space that doesn’t happen year-round. You put that Lav Diaz film the week after in the same theatre and people will not go in the same numbers. They go because there’s an excitement and an urgency around seeing it at that particular moment. We try to cultivate that every year but we don’t expect it will continue once the festival closes.

TIFF is one of a number of festivals starting in the next months. In this competitive festival season, how do you ensure the ecosystem lives?

Festivals are an increasingly significant part of how films that aren’t purely commercial survive in the world. We help to deliver audiences, media coverage, awareness. There are new festivals all the time, which are constantly rising and falling in significance, so if you’re running a festival it’s your job to maintain its health but also that of the overall ecosystem. There’s naturally some competition, but it should never be a kind of scorched earth competition where anyone’s looking to destroy another festival. That’s not good for any of us.

“The Magnificent Seven” is TIFF’s opening night film. Sequels and reboots are often criticised for destroying creativity in cinema. What’s the good side of a reboot?

Well, you know, James Joyce rebooted Homer! There’s a lot to be said for artists that will go to previous material and find new ways to express it. That can be done at a high level and in a crass, commercial way, too. It’s all in the execution. We’re glad to be opening with “The Magnificent Seven”; it’s using great source material but is a totally new film. It’s about 2016; it speaks to our age right now, as Westerns always do. I have no objection to filmmakers working with previous material, it’s all about what they do with it.

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  1. maryna ajaja says:

    “There are new festivals all the time, which are constantly rising and falling in significance, so if you’re running a festival it’s your job to maintain its health but also that of the overall ecosystem.” Nicely put.

  2. Brian says:

    Is this THAT “Toronto Fest artistic director” Cameron Bailey, that was responsible for rejecting “Birdman” (later ‘Best Picture’ winner) and “Victoria” (an acclaimed & innovative feature film shot in 1 take). It must be… “Birdman” producer John Lesher said in 2015 to ‘The Hollywood Reporter’: “We didn’t go to Toronto because we didn’t get into Toronto (…) We showed it to them as an early cut. Let’s just say folks at Toronto weren’t as enthu­siastic as everyone else was.” And director Sebastian Schipper said in 2016 to Indiewire: “…a year ago, we tried to get into the TIFF festival, as our premiere. And they didn’t take us. (…) Back then it was the old, “oh you know how it is.” They said, “we don’t really know where to put it,” what segment, “plus we don’t believe it’s a one-take.” I don’t know, I felt this venom.” Mr. Bailey’s competence as an ‘artistic director’ is very questionable. Maybe someone else should do the job ?

    • Max Borg says:

      Birdman was, most likely, a casualty of Toronto’s predilection for world premieres at the time (for American films, anyway). Since it was picked for Venice and Telluride, the festival’s policy made it highly unlikely for the film to screen in Toronto.

      Besides, all the major festivals have, at one point or another, made similar mistakes (two consecutive Golden Lion winners in Venice – Vera Drake and Brokeback Mountain – were rejected by Cannes, and Venice itself turned down Unforgiven back in the day). Doesn’t mean the artistic director is incompetent…

    • Al says:

      Victoria did play TIFF. And I call bull on the Birdman. Sure Toronto programmers may have recognized that the movie was crap, but they would have played it anyway. But the movie did go to Venice, Telluride and NYFF. So perhaps

      • Dan says:

        Al, read yourself, you’ll find it easily…This is the original quote by Sebastian Schipper: “For Toronto, to show the film as a special presentation, after it’s been screened at the Berlinale is a big honor, and on top of that, a year ago, we tried to get into the festival, as our premiere. And they didn’t take us…” So, “Victoria” was indeed rejected by TIFF, but Cameron bailey changed his mind after he saw he made a big mistake: The Berlinale had the film now in competition & it was indeed a “one take”. The competent guys were the people in Berlin, NOT Cameron Bailey in Toronto: He didn’t see the unique quality of this film. And the “Birdman” rejection is unquestionably true: It was reported by the Hollywood Reporter. And it could have hurt the film, because TIFF is a much better starting point for an Oscar campaign than Venice or NYFF. The so-called “artistic director” Cameron Bailey failed both times.
        Since both films are innovative masterpieces of the medium, it’s very hard to explain, how he couldn’t see the unique quality in them. The only explanation is: Cameron Bailey didn’t do his job, because he was partying too much. Or he is simply incompetent. Please, get someone else before he makes more big mistakes…

    • J2 says:

      I agree with Brian to an extent. There is an autocracy at TIFF, the same big players in the same big roles for years now. It can cause a myopic view of world cinema.

      That said, I can live with such perceived limitations as I’m a regular festival attendee from the states. Nowhere else, for one glorious week, can my obsession for 4 unique films a day be met. Toronto is such a great city, making those moments between films so enjoyable.

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