Touring titles give festival credibilty

Toronto becoming a year-round event

For 10 days each year, Toronto is the center of the film universe. But the festival has slowly been expanding, making Toronto a year-round event.

The organizers have created a number of initiatives that have seen the fest’s outreach spread throughout Canada and other parts of the world.

There’s a financial gain, and the fest helps spread its brand name around the globe. But fest reps say that much of the upside is for artistic reasons.

According to Toronto fest co-director Piers Handling, “Ten years ago distributors came to us and said ‘The festival’s great but you’re using the films up. Is there any way you can help us beyond Toronto and beyond the 10 days of the festival?’ So we created this remarkable initiative called the Film Circuit.”

The fest’s umbrella company, the Toronto Intl. Film Festival Group, launched Film Circuit in 1995. The goal is to bring films — independent, foreign-language and Canadian titles — to areas of Canada that are outside urban centers, areas that normally don’t get to see such specialized fare. In a dozen years, Film Circuit has grown and now boasts 190 partner groups in 170 communities across the country.

But Film Circuit only takes on films that already have distribution in Canada. According to Handling, that’s the only cost-effective way to operate the scheme: “Our partners can’t cherry-pick a film from Iran, for example, with no distributor. It’s too expensive to fly that print in and work out an arrangement with the Iranian copyright.”

The org has also branched out overseas. It’s been bringing Canadian films and talent to Europe and Asia, in essence becoming a sort of leading distributor of Canuck pix.

“We’ve been to the U.K., across Europe, India, even Nepal and other Asian countries,” says Handling. “A lot of independent cinemas around the world are looking for alternative films and niches. The U.K. tour, for example, has been in place for five years, with a week of Canadian cinema once a year. It’s almost like a mini-festival.”

Aside from the cultural significance of the initiative, the Film Circuit has established a commercial imperative too. The org practices a revenue-sharing system for all films toured in Canada, with distribs, exhibs and the Film Circuit splitting the revenues equally.

With total annual revenue for Film Circuit screenings currently hovering between $2-3 million, that’s a substantial amount of coin. Handling also estimates that the Circuit’s top-grossing films can bring in as much as $200,000 each.

The org is even starting to attract its own preems. Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her,” for example, bowed through the Circuit’s provincial venues rather than in major centers such as Toronto, Vancouver or Halifax. “It guaranteed them revenue from the Circuit and built up word of mouth and good reviews before they actually opened in the major urban centers,” says Handling. “That’s pretty significant.”

While the Film Circuit has given the fest a purpose beyond Toronto’s borders, organizers have even more ambitious plans for the city itself. Work is underway on developing Bell Lightbox, a film center that will be the new home of the fest once it opens in 2010. The $190 million complex, which will be built on land owned and donated by helmer Ivan Reitman, has already raised $132 million of its planned budget, with the federal and provincial governments kicking in grants of $24 million each.

“It was total serendipity that Ivan and his two sisters were looking to develop that prime piece of land in downtown Toronto, which is currently a parking lot,” says Handling. “It’s going to have year-round programming every single day of the year of all kinds — retrospectives, historical, contemporary, gallery shows, installations, memorabilia. It will be like the mecca of cinema. The dream is to turn it into one of the landmark destinations in the world where film lovers can go and celebrate their love of cinema.”

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