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Los Cabos: Piers Handling on Toronto’s Growth, Year-Round Presence, Digital Challenge

LOS CABOS, Mexico — September’s 43rd Toronto Intl. Film Festival was Piers Handling’s 37th and final edition, the director and CEO since 1994 stepping down after the event following 23 years at its helm and an association running back to 1982.

Honored at Mexico’s Los Cabos Festival, Handling reflected in a conversation with Mexican journalist Leonardo García Tsao about the extraordinary evolution of Toronto and the film festival scene at large.

Handling commented at one point during the talk that he will finally get a summer holiday. For how long is another matter. He is already preparing to write a history of film festivals. His comments at Los Cabos indeed already carried the weight of long thought-through reflection. Here are just three points from a highly entertaining one-hour conversation, which took in how the Oscar race has hugely affected fall festivals, the challenges to independent production, what makes a festival click:

1.TORONTO’ SIGNATURE GROWTH

Maybe no other festival in the world has grown as much as Toronto. Launched as the Toronto Festival of Festivals in 1976, its first edition screened 127 films and had an audience of some 35,000. By 2016, those figures had grown to 397 movies playing before an audience of 480,000. ”You never have a real clear sense of what your festival going to turn into,” Handling said at Los Cabos. That said, Toronto set out to grow into a big, inclusive festival. “There needed to be ultimately a very large festival in North America to counterbalance the big festivals in Europe,”  There was a market demand for such as event. “The U.S. was and still is the most important film market in the world. A lot of people wanted to get their films released into North America.” “Toronto’s big advantage was that it was in North America but not in the United States of America.” A lot of the international industry which came didn’t feel overwhelmed by the U.S. industry. Toronto was “neutral ground,” Handling said. “The Torontonians love the fact that it’s a huge international event that happens every year; it feels in a funny way that we have the Olympics every year in your city,” he added.

2.LEVERAGING SPONSORSHIP: THE TIFF BELL LIGHTHOUSE 

Maybe Handling’s biggest single achievement was the construction of the TIFF Bell Lightbox, a permanent film hub home offering year-round programming, lectures and exhibitions. Handling said that he was inspired by his own cinematheque background. Also, “so much really interesting programming was being offered to us and we couldn’t absorb it into the festival.” Also, a festival covers a short period of time “You’re developing a huge interest and excitement with your audience and they have no outlet for it, unless there’s a thriving arthouse scene.” But the Bell Lightbox also has an economic rationale. Toronto depends in large part on corporate sponsors. We began to say: ‘Maybe there’s a way of not only connecting with more of your audience but doing something for people who are supporting the event.” As government festival funding comes until larger fiscal pressure and sponsors demand more bang for their buck, more festivals in Europe are likely to go more year-round. Many have already started.

3.FESTIVALS’ BIG CURRENT CHALLENGE: THE DIGITAL UNIVERSE 

As arthouse cinemas close and industry is “becoming more and more homogenized,” with “more and more English-language material entering the marketplace,” festivals are “a site of resistance, aspirational hope for what cinema can do.” The only people who can keep those ideas alive are festivals and institutions. But festivals these days have to start in a significant way to think internationally.”How do you have a presence outside your city? That’s a big challenge for festivals right now. It’s not just physical programming. It’s the digital universe and how we can carve out a niche for ourselves. That’s the next tidal wave that’s coming at us. How you keep relevant while still retaining the core of what you are as an institution, [valuing] the big-screen experience? If people can’t go to your festival physically, how can they experience what you’re doing in a virtual way? Nobody’s really worked that out. That’s the challenge for the next generation behind me.”

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