Toronto Film Festival Considers Digital Options in Post-Coronavirus World (EXCLUSIVE)

Toronto's Bell Lightbox cinema may be on coronavirus lockown, but the festival staff is busy planning a hybrid version of the 2020 edition.

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It’s “full steam ahead” at the Toronto Film Festival, according to artistic director Cameron Bailey. However, even the organizers of North America’s largest annual film gathering can’t say with total certainty what that means, since there are so many unknowns in the fast-evolving coronavirus pandemic.

TIFF traditionally takes place in early September, boasting a lineup of nearly 300 films. Unlike other festivals that were forced to cancel or postpone due to coronavirus, the team is committed to deliver some form of the event on its original September dates — even if that means fewer venues, smaller audiences or, worst case scenario, no in-person component at all. Six months out, the team has already started developing some kind of virtual or streaming alternative, should it come to that.

“Postponing is definitely not a possibility on the table right now. [Based on] everything that we are learning, things might get worse in October or November if there is a second wave,” says TIFF executive director and co-head Joana Vicente.

By sticking to its dates and thinking about contingency plans early, TIFF has positioned itself as the year’s de facto can’t-miss festival and market. While travel restrictions have forced programmers to cancel March trips to Los Angeles, New York and Hong Kong FilMart, Bailey insists that studios and filmmakers eager to premiere their work remain highly motivated for their films to be considered.

“Everyone’s being really cooperative in making sure we get to see the films we need to see,” he says.

That said, even if local authorities give Toronto the all-clear, there’s virtually no way this year’s edition can follow the format of years past.

“We know that there are a lot of industry members and delegates that will not be able to travel to Toronto because they are coming from all over the world,” Vicente says. “It’s going to be a modified version of the festival. We’re going to look at doing some kind of social distancing. Maybe it’s not six feet [of separation], but maybe there’s a seat in between.”

For his part — overseeing a program that stands to benefit from all the other cancellations — Bailey is bullish, but also realistic. “We are absolutely planning for a public festival and a strong industry component,” he says. “We are going to follow what happens with public health guidelines, of course, and that will determine more. We hope that by the middle of June, say, we’ll be able to make a call [as to] which way we are leaning. But we will deliver a festival this year.”

Toronto doesn’t really have a choice. As an organization, TIFF operates year-round (they had to close the Bell Lightbox Cinema on March 14, temporarily laying off part-time staff and forcing partner festivals, such as Hot Docs, to seek alternate arrangements through at least July). The September festival is their big revenue-driver, funding many of their other initiatives, and they’re already facing a big potential loss as the crisis impacts would-be sponsors.

That means having to get creative about cutting costs, potentially shrinking the event (industry sources speculate the nearly 300-film lineup could shrink by as much as half) and looking for money from the government and donors in order to achieve even a scaled-down version of the event.

At a moment when other events are keeping audiences on tenterhooks, Toronto is actively trying to adapt and communicate. Early on, Bailey and Vicente posted a video to the TIFF site, reaching out to audiences and articulating their position. (By contrast, the far-smaller and more rarefied Telluride Film Festival, which is scheduled for Sept. 3-7, hasn’t publicly acknowledged the pandemic but is discreetly moving forward with plans, knowing that they don’t have to decide whether to cancel until August.)

“We’re already looking at a hybrid festival,” says Vicente, explaining that there will “definitely” be a digital component of the upcoming edition. “How big that digital component is and what it looks like, we’re still working on that.”

It’s not enough just to announce a lineup that no one can see, the way Hot Docs and several canceled festivals have. “You have to be able to deliver the film to people who are interested in buying the film for their territory, people who are interested in writing about it and assessing it as critics,” Bailey says. Toronto is different from Venice and Cannes in that it doubles as a community festival, serving both the industry and local audiences.

TIFF has already started engaging with the latter via its “Stay-at-Home Cinema” series, partnering with Canadian streaming service Crave to offer recent and classic movies, in which Bailey conducts virtual Q&As with the likes of Emilio Estevez and Sarah Polley. “We find that with the online experience, people want more than just the ability to see a film, even a new film,” explains Bailey, who’s looking to expand that model with certain festival premieres, should in-person options remain limited.

“It really forces us to go back to, ‘What is the core DNA of our festival? What are we offering?’” Bailey says. “Whether that’s the excitement of the in-person experience, the profile you get in the media from having your film invited, the opportunity to sell [to potential distributors] — all of those things — how can we still offer those core elements to people who bring films to us? That’s really what we’re working on.”

While it’s nearly impossible to make firm plans in such unprecedented times, the Toronto co-heads see this as an opportunity for solidarity among festivals and support for the industry.

“What I think we’re really seeing is people being who they truly are in these situations,” Bailey says. ”Most of the people who are in the film industry are fighters and survivors. They are desperate to protect these films that they put all this effort and time and money into, the companies that they built — often from nothing — all of the things that are really important to them…And they need these films to come out.”

According to Vicente, “Whoever will be the first big festival that is able to happen needs to just kind of bring people together. If we get lucky and have the festival in September — which we are obviously hoping for and planning for — we really see it as a moment to celebrate films, to celebrate the filmmakers, to support the industry, to bring audiences back. That’s the thing that people love about Toronto, it’s the Toronto audiences.”