Hanif Harji runs Figo, an Italian joint a block away from the heart of the Toronto International Film Festival. Over the years, he’s had a chance to see a lot of A-listers in their element. There was that time Bill Murray started a conga line, or the evening when Joaquin Phoenix stepped outside to take a puff of a cigarette while basking in the glow of the “Joker” premiere.
But that was a long time ago. Since COVID, TIFF has operated as a shell of its former self, with either virtual editions or festivals that unspooled at limited capacity.
This year, though, the party is back. For the first time since 2019, TIFF is expected to have a full slate. For local restaurants, bars and hotels, those packed screenings and star-studded red carpets mean big business. Harji and his counterparts in Toronto are eager for the festival to return in all its loud, glittering glory. The 47th edition runs from Sept. 8-18.
“In the 10 days [of the festival], we have five restaurant buyouts, which is quite exciting,” says Harji, the CEO of Scale Hospitality, which owns 11 restaurants in the area. “On the days we don’t have buyouts, we have a lot of reservations.”
And Figo isn’t the only venue looking to cash in on the return of in-person festival season. The gathering of creative minds that attracts around 500,000 people a year is the reason Soho House set its sights on Toronto about a decade ago. Since 2010, Soho House Toronto has become the choice establishment for stars like Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicole Kidman to enjoy cocktails in the club’s baronial splendor while waiting for the reviews to hit. But in 2021, Soho House shelved the large parties that were its stock-in-trade, instead resorting to socially distanced dinners for 30 people.
“It was definitely lacking last year,” says Markus Anderson, Soho House’s chief membership officer. “I went to a couple of premieres, and the red carpet had three reporters instead of hundreds. A lot of talent didn’t come. There were great films, but it was pared down.”
This year, TIFF will host the world premiere of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s historical epic “The Woman King,” starring Viola Davis; Rian Johnson’s murder-mystery sequel “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” with Daniel Craig returning as detective Benoit Blanc; Steven Spielberg’s coming-of-age story “The Fabelmans”; “My Policeman,” a 1950s drama about a closeted police officer played by Harry Styles; and Billy Eichner’s romantic comedy “Bros.” Many of those films are backed by major companies, including Universal, Netflix and Sony Pictures; some, such as Florian Zeller’s “The Son,” will come straight from Venice.
But plenty of other buzzy releases head to Toronto in the hope of securing distribution, and there’s no better way to wow a potential buyer than a screening filled with laughter or tears. Compared with Cannes and Venice, which mostly are attended by industry professionals, Toronto is filled with everyday movie-goers. For filmmakers and distributors, those are some of the best crowds to assess the commercial prospects for a movie.
“Sales agents look at TIFF as an opportunity to show buyers their films with a public audience,” says Geoff Macnaughton, a senior programmer for the festival. “We pride ourselves on having an amazing public, diverse audience in Toronto. The audience reaction is what helps fuel a bidding war.
TIFF, one of the unofficial launchpads of awards season, has always managed to generate both sales and the kudos to match; its People’s Choice Award singles out eventual Oscar nominees and winners with uncanny accuracy. But the virtual and more subdued editions of the past two years have not stirred the kind of enthusiasm that has accompanied pre-pandemic award winners such as “La La Land,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “The King’s Speech” and “Slumdog Millionaire.” Those films went on to great box office success in addition to sweeping at the Academy Awards, while 2020 winner “Nomadland” and 2021 victor “Belfast” faced pandemic-era theater closures and other disruptions to traditional distribution and awards campaigning. (“Nomadland” did go on to win three Oscars, including best picture; “Belfast” won one, so the people still know they’re doing when it comes to awards.)
With the festival’s grand return, though, publicists and studio executives hope that box office and awards campaigning will rebound.
“It’s very hard for films to be discovered in an online environment,” says Shannon Treusch, the co-founder of public relations film Falco Ink. “Films succeed at festivals based on buzz. Last year, there was no lobby chatter after people saw a movie; films suffered because of that.”
The veteran publicist, who travels yearly to TIFF with her clients, adds, “Nothing compares to the in-person experience.”
That sentiment is shared by Toronto-based business owners. Sure, hosting the festival in-person is ideal because it allows cinephiles to ensconce themselves in the magic of the big screen. But it’s also a massive boon to the city’s economy.
The luxury hotel Shangri-La Toronto is leaning into the return of lots of foot traffic. It is planning a TIFF-inspired afternoon tea, and its bartenders are crafting cocktails named after new movies — the flavors of ginger, lemongrass and lime in “The Woman King” cocktail, for example “represents strength, courage and the power within,” all yours for just $45. With those aesthetically pleasing drinks and more, Shangri-La is touting the kind of “endless Instagrammable moments” that are hard to pull off from your couch at home.
Toronto is a big town, dwarfing Park City, which hosts the Sundance Film Festival in January, but business owners have come to rely on the fest. It provides a jolt of activity around the slow period in September, when students are going back to school and people are returning from vacation.
“The city feels different now, since the fest became a presence,” Harji says. “People who don’t normally come downtown on a Monday or Tuesday are coming down. The neighborhood is getting a big boost.” Over the past two years, when the festival wasn’t running at full capacity, he says, “we felt it quite a bit.”