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Toronto Film Festival CEO Cameron Bailey on Landing Spielberg’s ‘The Fabelmans’ and Returning to Splashy Premieres

Cameron Bailey
Matt Barnes

The Toronto Film Festival unveiled the biggest and most star-studded lineup of major movies since COVID upended the awards season landscape. It’s all part of what Cameron Bailey, CEO of TIFF, believes will mark a dramatic return to something resembling the pre-pandemic atmosphere of past festivals.

That’s the reason TIFF was able to attract such a cavalcade of talent, with the likes of Darren Aronofsky (“The Whale”) Sam Mendes (“Empire of Light”) Sarah Polley (“Women Talking”), Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Woman King”) and Steven Spielberg (“The Fabelmans”) all scheduled to unveil their latest films. As TIFF unveiled the bulk of its lineup on Thursday, Bailey spoke with Variety about what festival-goers can look forward to when they touch down in Toronto.

For the past two years, you’ve had virtual gatherings or festivals that were pared down pretty dramatically because of COVID. Will this edition of TIFF look like the pre-pandemic festivals that came before it?

We’re going to have the fan excitement, the big audiences, the big movies launching, the red carpets. If that sounds like a familiar Toronto Film Festival, that’s what we’re going to have this year. We’ve got a pretty standard lineup of around 200 feature films and around 40 short films. That’s a little bit less than you would have seen in 2019 but much, much bigger than the last two years which were affected by the pandemic, of course.

Will TIFF require masks or proof of vaccination? Are you taking any COVID safety precautions?

No, right now and for many months we’ve been operating without those restrictions. Those were gradually withdrawn [in Canada] over the course of the winter and spring. The festival will operate without a mask requirement or without a proof of vaccine requirement.

In the past year, there have been a lot of major changes in the Hollywood landscape. WarnerMedia merged with Discovery, Amazon bought Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Has that impacted companies’ interest in going to festivals?

Not really. Behind the scenes sometimes we now need to talk to people that we may not have met before, so we’re developing those relationships. But it doesn’t really alter what we select or what is sent to us. The good news is there’s still a lot of great movies being made that want to launch in festivals like ours. Regardless of what companies own the rights to those films, if you’re looking for a festival launch in the fall, they usually are knocking at our door.

For the first time, Steven Spielberg is debuting one of his movies at TIFF. How did you land “The Fabelmans”?

He doesn’t often go to film festivals with his films because he doesn’t generally need the awareness building they provide. But this is a very personal film for him. It’s a great environment to launch “The Fabelmans.” It’s different from a typical Spielberg blockbuster, but it is just as easily impactful in terms of the emotional effect it’s going to have on people. If you love movies, this is going to be a very powerful film for you to watch. I’m excited that it’s launching in an environment that celebrates cinema.

Sam Mendes’ “Empire of Light,” which is set in a coastal movie theater in 1980s England and stars Olivia Colman and Colin Firth, seems like another testament to the power of film. What drew you to that movie?

It’s such a strong representation of why movies matter and what they do to us that is beyond our control. It’s a terrific story of a woman who works in a movie theater, but she doesn’t watch the movies that play there. She just takes the tickets and deals with the crazy personalities in the theater. But as the story unfolds, you begin to see how cinema allows people to feel big emotions that they don’t get to experience in daily life. There are terrific performances, and it’s another great film from Sam Mendes in a career of outstanding work.

Beyond tributes to the power of movies, are there any thematic connections between the films at this year’s festival?

The film world and the films that go to festivals have been profoundly affected by a kind of reckoning and awakening in terms of gender. We have powerful films that are by or about women whether that’s “Causeway” with Jennifer Lawrence or Lena Dunham’s “Catherine Called Birdy.”

We’re seeing many more stories that either weren’t told when men dominated the film world or were placed in the background of men’s stories. When you put women in the writer’s chair or behind the camera as directors or as main characters, you get different kinds of stories and ones that resonate with audiences in different ways.

It also seems like there are a lot of movies about the LGBTQ experience or the Black experience that weren’t really being produced by major studio just a few years ago. Are you seeing a change in the kinds of films that are available to screen?

Absolutely. It’s interesting to think about the role that movies play in terms of moving society forward by allowing us to create bonds of empathy through projecting ourselves into stories about people that may be nothing like us. Take Billy Eichner’s “Bros.” It is a big mainstream movie that is also a very queer, LGBTQ rom-com from a major Hollywood studio. That’s new and exciting. And then you have “My Policeman” with a romantic triangle involving two men and a woman. The performances and the story of that film are going to open up avenues for people to understand the issues raised by it a bit better.

We’ve got a number of terrific films from Black filmmakers, including Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” with Viola Davis, who is just on fire in this movie, and “On the Come Up.” We’ve got a great documentary “Black Ice,” about Black players in hockey that people may be entirely unaware of. And then there’s Stephen Williams’ “Chevalier,” which is the true story of a biracial Black man in Marie Antoinette’s court. There’s a fascinating expansion of stories that are being told and a growing recognition that these audiences have long been here, craving stories like these ones.